For the Sake of Our Children, Families and Communities, We Must Legalize Marijuana

By asha bandele and Rashad Robinson Oct 31, 2016

In this election cycle when many feel that they are going to have to hold their noses as they pull the lever for the next president there will be at least one clear choice for people in California who are concerned about incarceration rates and communities of color: Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. 

Now, before you stop reading because you’re not a California voter or you think marijuana has nothing to do with you, we want you to consider several things. Prop 64 is, at its heart, a sentencing reform act, building on the changes ushered in by Prop 47 two years ago. We hold no illusion that the revolution will be legislated, and Prop 64 does not go as far as we’d like it to. But we still urge Californians to vote for the first legalization initiative that centers repairing the harm done to communities targeted and disassembled by the drug war.

In making it legal for adults 21 and older to possess, transport, purchase, consume and share up to one ounce of marijuana and eight grams of concentrate, the law also ensures that no young person under 18 will ever go to jail again for any marijuana offense. And when they turn 18, any existing marijuana offenses will be automatically expunged from their record. If this law passes, people of all ages currently sitting in jail for marijuana law offenses can apply for immediate release beginning at 12:01 a.m. on November 9, and there is no fee in applying for release.

Some Californians who have enjoyed the benefits of the state’s medical marijuana laws have argued that no one gets arrested or convicted for marijuana law offenses in the state anymore. We disagree, and strongly. Perhaps no one privileged does. But in the last decade there were 500,000 arrests for marijuana offenses. Seventy percent of those arrests were people of color according to the Department of Justice’s 2014 reporting. And in Los Angeles County some 500 people—primarily African-American and Latinx young people—are sitting in jail for a marijuana arrest as you read these words.

But there’s more. People still needlessly burdened by a past marijuana conviction—perhaps barred from housing or obtaining a school loan—can have their records expunged. If passed, Prop 64 will also change the game for the thousands of legal immigrants living in California who would have been detained or deported for a simple marijuana offense. 

In drafting the bill, advocates removed provisions mandated in other states that automatically exclude people with criminal records. In fact, it prohibits discrimination against someone solely on the basis of a past drug conviction. And 64 further reduces barriers to enter the legal market because fees are scaled to the size of the business. California small-business owners will have a shot, unlike those in other states who need millions of dollars just to start up. This makes sense for those of us who believe in economic equity.

Perhaps one of the most important provisions in Prop 64 is that it redirects some $50 million a year into Black and Latinx communities that were targeted by the drug war. Those monies will be administered by the governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development and disbursed to community organizations dedicated to restoring neighborhoods damaged by the war on drugs. These grants must be disbursed in consultation not only with the Labor and Workforce Development Agency and the Department of Social Services but with the advice and counsel of community advocates.

Even still, there are some compromises in Prop 64, as there always are in legislation. It drives some dollars into law enforcement—a percentage of the tax revenue goes to local governments for police training. Another portion of tax money will be granted to local governments for programs addressing public health and safety issues associated with implementation of Prop 64. So the job of advocates is to redefine what public safety is and must be. To us, public safety looks like communities with resourced schools, green spaces, quality housing and access to decent healthcare.

Prop 64 sets a new bar in marijuana law reform, demanding that the way forward must include economic equity and the repair of the harms of the past. We must eliminate every tool we can that criminalizes our precious young people who have borne the brunt of our horrific drug laws. Legalizing marijuana does just that. That’s why on November 8, in California, it must be Yes on 64.

asha bandele is a senior director at Drug Policy Action. Rashad Robinson is the executive director of