Behind The Social And Economic Equity in Cannabis Legalization
by Heather Occhino
According to Cannabis.ny.com, the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act (otherwise known as MRTA) serves an expansive role in emphasizing the access of resources to those belonging to communities who have been negatively affected by policies established as part of the prohibition of cannabis (“Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act”). On March 31 of 2021, New York State legislated lawful adults using cannabis for recreational purposes and the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) was created, as a result, which authorized the Cannabis Control Board to yield the power of regulating the use of marijuana, both in a recreational and medical context. A critical factor driving the MRTA is its special attention focused on social and economic equity, specifically through implementation of related initiatives to help the cause of serving social and economic equity alike. A major focus of the program is to encourage the promotion of ethnic, racial, and gender diversity for activities involving cannabis usage, as well as provide support for licensed cannabis businesses hosted by those who are a minority, a veteran disabled from service, a farmer in unconventional agricultural conditions or a woman (Hunter).
The MRTA also includes the policy to deduct any prior cannabis-related convictions from a person’s record, as proposed subsequently to Governor Andrew Cuomo legislating the decriminalization of marijuana usage in 2019. A main focus of this effort is to disimplement prohibitions which have been abused by law enforcement over communities of people of color (“What is in the Law”, para. 2).
According to ACLU.org, data conducted from the company’s analysis finds that racial bias was a consistent factor in the data trend of marijuana arrests. “88% of arrests were made for simply having marijuana”, ( “The War On Marijuana” ) out of the total amount of 8.2 million recorded marijuana-related arrests throughout the early 2000’s. It was deduced from this piece of data that, “Despite roughly equal usage rates”, Black people are over 3 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession
(“Marijuana Arrests by the Numbers”). Also, in 2010, a multi-graph data chart, demonstrates that “In Iowa, D.C., Minnesota, & Illinois-Blacks were 7.5 to 8.5 more likely than whites to be arrested for having weed in Iowa” (“Worst Disparities in 2010”). Based on a separate graph part of the chart, it was also recorded in 2010 that over half of drug arrests were from marijuana compared to other illegal forms of drug substances. These collective pieces of data show the manifestation of aggressive policing of marijuana possession and use, which have been enforced for the past two decades of the 2000’s in the U.S. (“War on Marijuana”).
Unfortunately, veterans are a group of people who are also impacted by prohibition laws of cannabis at a disproportionate rate compared to those who have not been in service. Post-traumatic stress disorder, severe injury of vital organs, anxiety, depression, opiod overdose and suicide are not unfamiliar experiences of a lot of soldiers after leaving the military, especially after being directly involved in combat and witnessing brutal violence. According to DAV.org, the story of Air Force veteran Jarid Watson includes how the use of cannabis has positively shifted his way of living, as recounted by his wife, Priscilla. “Before [Jarid] started using [cannabis], he was constantly complaining about how tense and tight he was”, as recalled by Priscilla, “But now he sleeps all night and isn’t in pain anymore” (Hunter, 2018, para. 10). Throughout his physical training and rigorous work regiments of almost 12 years in service, he obtained chronic pain after his labrum was torn from a bone growth attached to his hip joint. This eventually led Watson to undergo the process of medical retirement from the armed forces in 2016. Utterly acknowledging the chronic pain he was to deal with following leaving the military and facing its life-altering effects, he immediately anticipated the use of trying medical cannabis, rather than taking painkillers (Hunter).
A report in 2017 derived from the research performed by the National Center for Health Statistics, reveals that opioids have taken the lives of more than 42,000 Americans in 2016. “Alarmingly, a 2013 analysis by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that opioid prescriptions for veterans spiked 270 percent over a 12-month period”. Another alarming statistic found that about 13% percent of the veteran population had an opioid-use disorder, yet opioids were still prescribed to veterans for chronic pain. (Hunter, 2018, para. 5-6).
Pain pills prescribed to veterans have not been working, as claimed by the founder of Veterans Cannabis Project, Nick Etten, which is an organization designed to help veterans enhance their quality of life through the accessible use of cannabis for medical purposes (Hunter, 2018, para. 7). Both Etten and Priscilla have come to a paired agreement that cannabis is an effective and safe use for the treatment of veterans to aid with disorders like post-traumatic stress and severe cerebral injury.
However, according to Military Benefits.info, the Department of Veteran Affairs upholds a firm policy prohibiting any use, recommendation, and prescription of federally illegal substances and identifies cannabis as an FDA Schedule 1 Controlled Substance. Due to the federal categorization of marijuana, veterans who use the substance would be ineligible for employment or continued employment under the VA. There are circumstances where veterans may use marijuana for medical purposes in states in which the substance is legalized, after being screened for any symptoms such as chronic pain, PTSD and debilitating forms of conditions and being advised by a clinician (Three Creeks Media, 2021, “VA Policy”). However, it would take a long time for laws to shift as to where veterans all over the U.S. may have access to the use of marijuana for alleviating chronic pain, PTSD, as well as stress and anxiety, and otherwise use the substance to aid themselves in improving their well-being, under the Department of Veteran Affairs’s approval.
I have loved ones who are currently veterans or actively serving in the armed forces. From their experiences they shared, I can only imagine how stress-inducing and traumatic some experiences they directly faced are and how that can affect them after leaving the military. One of my family members is serving in the most dangerous job position of the Army and his mental health and physical well-being are put on the line everyday. If he is called into combat, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health disorders like anxiety, chronic stress and depression is sadly something which isn’t unlikely to affect him. He, along with every other person in the armed forces serving, is at risk of obtaining a chronic impact on his physical state, as well, which could permanently alter the way he lives his life after leaving the armed services. It would hurt myself and my family if using cannabis would effectively alleviate his chronic pain, if he had it, but he was denied from using it as a veteran.
The efforts of the MRTA are a progressive step to allowing those disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition laws to have access to the substance in states where it has been decriminalized, such as in New York. Including the expungement of criminal records associated with marijuana for people, as part of their program, is a crucial factor to bring social and equity justice to those in communities who have been systematically affected by cannabis laws in a harsher manner. With time and systematic supportive effort, the legalization of cannabis can not only be revealed to improve the mental and physical state of those suffering from chronic disorders and pain, but also reveal the institutionalized discrimination integrated in the American legal system, in which the overcharging and excessive punishment of cannabis possession and use has been shown to be one out of many forms of manifestation of bias imposed toward people of color, socioeconomincally-disadvantaged farmers, women, disabled people, service-disabled veterans-groups of marginalized people in the U.S.