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In Maine, and 35 other states, sales of marijuana for medical or recreational use is legal. Yet, sale and possession of pot remains a federal crime.
As a result, the growing marijuana business in Maine, and elsewhere in the U.S., remains a cash crop with these businesses barred from federal loans and other financial transactions. Worse, the current system perpetuates a legal system that has disproportionately sent Black Americans to jail for possessing and using marijuana.
It is time to end this counterproductive system, which is an outgrowth of the failed War on Drugs.
On Friday, the U.S. House, for the first time, passed a measure to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. The bill passed Friday, largely along party lines, would remove marijuana from the federal schedule of controlled substances. This would allow for the regulation and taxation of legal cannabis sales.
The measure is a long way from becoming law, most notably due to Republican opposition in the Senate.
Some Republicans have mocked the bill. Hypocritically, they criticized Democrats for prioritizing marjuana decriminalization over pandemic relief.
They should remember that the Democratic-controlled House has twice passed comprehensive relief bills. A skinny relief package did fail in the Senate, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is now the largest legislative hurdle in the way of a $908 billion plan, negotiated by a group of Senate and House members from both parties, including Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins.
Further, Congress can — and should — focus on multiple priorities at once.
Decriminalizing marijuana use and possession makes sense for a host of practical, financial and human reasons. It is also supported by a growing percentage of the American people.
In last month’s election, voters in five states — including South Dakota and Mississippi — passed measures to legalize marijuana. In both of those two states, the legalization measure won more votes than President Donald Trump.
Beyond popularity, there are practical reasons to support decriminalization, which Maine initially did in 1976. Since then, voters have approved legalizing medical marijuana, and more recently, the recreational use of cannabis. After years of delays, retail marijuana sales began in Maine in October, and generated about $1.4 million in sales in the first month.
The Bangor Daily News editorial board opposed the recreational marijuana legalization referendum in 2016. But, with voter approval, retail sales are here and we recognize the problems that continued federal criminalization causes, for sellers and users.
Because of a federal prohibition on marijuana sales and use, businesses that are following state and local laws are still forbidden from obtaining most bank loans and many can’t even conduct transactions with financial institutions that are federally chartered and insured. As a result, these businesses carry a lot of cash, a dangerous way to operate.
More importantly, federal drug policies, including the criminalization of marijuana, have especially hurt minority communities.
Black men receive federal drug sentences that are 19 percent longer than sentences imposed for White men, according to the Sentencing Project. Black Americans are more than three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts and Latinos are more than six times as likely to receive a federal sentence for cannabis possession than non-Hispanic white people.
Beyond the criminal injustice of this, these arrests and detentions often make it harder for non-white Americans to access jobs and benefits, which further increases poverty in their communities.
As a result, decriminalization can improve the health and economic vitality of communities, the Leadership Conference wrote to members of Congress last year.
We realize that decriminalization is far from a reality in the U.S., but Friday’s House action is a historic step in the right direction.