The Senate’s new cannabis reform bill can do more for drug war-targeted communities

Chantel Springer poses with her son Jasiah in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., July 29, 2020. Picture taken July 29, 2020.  REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Editor's note:

This blog post was submitted to the Senate Finance Committee under their request for comments on the initial draft of this legislation.

The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) is the most comprehensive piece of cannabis reform legislation ever introduced in Congress. It takes seriously the numerous questions left open in previous legislative proposals, including the twice-House-passed MORE Act. The bill’s primary sponsors, Sens. Booker (D-NJ); Wyden (D-OR); and Schumer (D-NY), placed racial justice at the center of this drug reform package that combines some of the best ideas and experiences in state legalization programs with existing research on the topic to address myriad, outstanding challenges in the cannabis policy space. Specifically, we address how tax revenue can be programmed to assist in additional areas like childcare, housing, and education. We also argue that by refining language around reentry services, the program funding can have more effective outcomes. Through these changes, the goal of helping reverse decades of drug war-motivated institutionalized racism can be realized and communities can begin to recover in a more holistic way.

One critical area of CAOA focuses on funding for community investment, especially in geographic areas harmed most by the racially disparate enforcement of the War on Drugs. In addition to record expungement and programming to increase minority ownership in the cannabis industry, by distributing tax revenue to those most affected by the drug war, the bill recognizes the disproportionate harm suffered by Black, Latino, and Native Americans communities. CAOA uses a Community Reinvestment Grant program to fund six specific (and important) areas: job training, reentry services, legal aid, literacy programs, youth recreation/mentoring, and health education.

“CAOA focuses on funding for community investment, especially in geographic areas harmed most by the racially disparate enforcement of the War on Drugs.”

However, in its admirable efforts to deal with the fallout of the War on Drugs, CAOA falls short in a few areas, including in the parts of the Community Reinvestment Grant program. Admittedly, cannabis tax revenue is finite and not every worthy program that should be funded can be funded. But the bill’s authors conceptualize the impact of the drug war in too narrow of terms. The spillover effects of the War on Drugs invade every aspect of the function of a targeted community.

For example, when one individual, particularly one earning income and supporting a family, is incarcerated, not only is that individual removed from his/her household, but so too is that individual’s social and financial contributions. Some of the drafted programming in CAOA helps fill the void of the social loss to the family (i.e., mentoring, literacy programming, and health, education).

However, the financial loss to a drug war-targeted family demands additional attention, especially in areas like childcare, housing assistance, and education. Childcare assistance is especially crucial for families from low-income backgrounds. For low-income families, childcare takes up to 35% of their income on average which is five times more than what experts recommended should be devoted to it.  Research shows that affordable childcare prevents absenteeism and other scheduling issues in the workplace. When parents can participate in the workforce, they can create better economic circumstances for their families as well as sustain their children’s social and emotional wellbeing. Support for quality childcare can help those in drug war impacted communities to rebuild. It works in tandem with the job retraining funding already written into CAOA.

“The financial loss to a drug war-targeted family demands additional attention, especially in areas like childcare, housing assistance, and education.”

Housing assistance is also an area in which the grant program can offer assistance. Low-income families have inadequate access to affordable housing. Fully 75% of low-income families pay more than half their income in rent. At least 7.2 million more affordable housing units are needed to assist low-income families. The formerly incarcerated are 10 times more likely to be homeless and 570 out of every 10,000 formerly incarcerated individuals are housing insecure. And while Sec. 312 of CAOA ensures that cannabis use or a past cannabis conviction cannot be used to deny an individual public benefits (including public housing), a more robust approach to housing support must be considered. By increasing funding through CAOA for housing support and services related to housing, the bill can expand opportunities for community economic mobility and help break cycles of poverty.

Another policy area that should be included in the grant program is scholarships that are targeted toward geographic areas most impacted by the War on Drugs and for which the application process is straightforward and streamlined. These scholarships should be available for two-year colleges, four-year colleges, and vocational schools. Research shows that “the United States loses more money by not achieving equal educational outcomes than it would spend by investing in educational inequality.” A study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy found that low-income students can only afford to attend one to five percent of institutions out of the 2000 institutions examined in the study. By making the necessary investments in education, a student’s earnings potential and socio-economic status can be greatly improved.

“CAOA should direct funding of re-entry services to those programs that have demonstrated effectiveness.”

CAOA should direct funding of re-entry services to those programs that have demonstrated effectiveness. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, “two-thirds of former offenders are rearrested within three years and half are reincarcerated.”  But there are programs that substantially reduce recidivism. Minnesota’s Comprehensive Offender Reentry Plan connects caseworkers in the prison system with supervision agents who are responsible for monitoring former inmates and connecting program participants to a variety of resources to support their professional and personal lives. For participants in the program rates of re-arrest, reconviction, revocation for technical violations, and re-incarceration were reduced by between 20-25%. To ensure program efficiency, the state should be responsible for managing this program while the federal government subsidizes it. This approach gives states discretion to tailor the program to fit their needs.

The bill should also fund transportation and employment services for reentering individuals. Accessing transportation is cited as one of the top difficulties for former prisoners who work, need to attend probation officer appointments, and/or to meet other daily obligations. Post-release employment services are also essential; former prisoners have unemployment rates of 27% and these rates are likely to have worsened since the pandemic began.

Finally, while there exists CAOA funding for drug rehabilitation and treatment, that programming needs to be expanded to include those who are incarcerated and reentering. Rehabilitation allows individuals to be more independent so that they can more adequately take care of themselves and their families. It also encourages people to take on a healthier lifestyle preventing their likelihood of contracting diseases and experiencing other health complications. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that “among the 21.6 million people aged 12 or older in 2019 who needed substance use treatment in the past year, (only) 12.2 percent (or 2.6 million people) received substance use treatment at a specialty facility in the past year.” [First parenthetical insert not in original.]

Addiction among former prisoners is especially prevalent as they are at substantial risk of relapsing and experiencing an overdose. Accidental overdoses account for 25% of deaths post-release. But treatment for substance abuse disorders cannot begin upon release, it must start while they are incarcerated and continue post-incarceration to be effective according to the National Institute on Drug Use. Doing so makes prisoners less likely to relapse and engage in criminal activities. According to research from the University of Michigan, currently none of the states allows inmates to have Medicaid coverage due to the Medicaid Inmate Exclusion Policy. Inmate inclusion in Medicaid services ensures rehabilitation affordability and a smooth transition between substance use disorder services before and after incarceration for continuity of care.

Comprehensive cannabis reform must take into account both the direct and indirect victims of the War on Drugs. In communities targeted by the drug war, both those incarcerated and those families not affected by arrests and imprisonment still face the impact of institutionalized racism in the reduction of opportunities. Because of the blanket impact of the drug war in these communities, a more holistic approach to community reinvestment is essential to help provide equitable opportunities and recovery, and some modest changes to CAOA’s Community Reinvestment Grant program can make meaningful steps in that direction.