Throughout the hundreds of pages of responses to a White House request for public comments on equity and drug policy, a theme emerged: people had a lot to say about cannabis.
In July, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) announced that it was seeking public comment on whether the Office’s policies, their drug budget, or grant programs “perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities for underserved communities and individuals from those communities.”
This was part of a broader Executive Order by President Joe Biden to “pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.” This Executive Order requires that federal agencies and offices select programs and “assess whether underserved communities and their members face systemic barriers in accessing benefits and opportunities available pursuant to those policies and programs.” To that end, ONDCP solicited the public’s comment on how the federal agency that leads and coordinates the nation’s drug policies is doing when it comes to equity.
The comments, which come in around 300 pages, range from searing critiques of the drug war to specific policy suggestions. Many outright called for cannabis decriminalization or legalization as a baseline move toward equity.
Among the comments submitted by unaffiliated individuals, several pointed out the racist roots of cannabis prohibition, while others made the case that cannabis should not be treated so differently from alcohol. Some recommended that the cannabis industry fund reparations, while others called for an expansion of approaches aimed at harm reduction, like syringe exchange programs.
More than a half dozen cannabis-focused organizations and businesses sent comments, including the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that is behind many of the country’s cannabis laws. DPA asked ONDCP to consider adopting five recommendations, including first starting with an evaluation of current drug laws and supporting “policy changes to improve equity.” DPA also asked ONDCP to include “voices of people who use drugs,” to divest in the law enforcement approach, and finally, to create requirements for grants so that ONDCP can track equity.
The Minority Cannabis Business Association, which was created to “serve the specific needs” of minority cannabis workers, entrepreneurs, patients, and consumers, sent comments framed around the fact that in order to “meaningfully address the impacts of Federal cannabis prohibition and provide solutions to barriers to equity the assessment and subsequent solutions must be of depth and breadth equal to the harm.”
MCBA recommended four points: equitable justice, centered on preventing the disproportionate arrest and imprisonment of people of color and also harms to immigrants that enforcement of cannabis laws can cause; equitable communities, which includes specific ways to lift up those that faced “generational economic, health, and educational disparities” due to disproportionate enforcement of cannabis laws; equitable industry, which means welcoming those pushed out of the industry due to lack of capital; and equitable access, which means “ending the denial of access to safe legal cannabis medicine to immigrants, veterans, seniors, and disabled persons without risk of loss of immigration status, benefits, housing, or medical care.”
Americans for Safe Access, a national group focused on medical cannabis access and research, encouraged ONDCP to form partnerships with organizations that have worked on drug policy and equity efforts, and noted that while many states and jurisdictions have made strides in equity efforts, many have fallen short. ASA participated in the launch of the City of Los Angeles’ equity program, which ASA said was “consistent with that of many other state and local governments across the country who have attempted to develop similar measures, in that the program experienced organizational challenges, and frequently subjected applicants to long delays.”
Like ASA, the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Education and Regulation (CPEAR), which counts Altria and Molson Coors as members, encouraged the ONDCP to consider forming a task force that could study how state cannabis programs work and their “effect on local communities.”
CPEAR also called for revisions to the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program Cannabis Impact Reporting, which has “fallen out of step” with evolving state laws. In addition, CPEAR suggested that ONDCP “engage in realtime data monitoring” including through state-legal track and trace programs, but also data related to automatic expungement and resentencing, as well as cannabis-impaired driving.
The US Cannabis Council, of which the Marijuana Policy Project’s Steve Hawkins is executive director, is a “strategic alliance” that includes both major advocacy orgs, large cannabis companies, and individuals who aim to “speak in one voice.”
“We at the US Cannabis Council believe the ONDCP’s role as the main designer and director of the policies and programs of the War on Drugs set the stage for many of the barriers to opportunity, specifically Black, Latino, Native American, and Asian ethnic minorities that would follow in its wake,” the Council noted in their comments. “It should make efforts to ensure it is no longer interfering with state regulatory programs, and make recommendations to President Biden and members of Congress to update federal law to better fit the need for regulation and a health and safety, rather than law enforcement approach.”
As both states and Congress consider cannabis law reform, the US Cannabis Council asked ONDCP to “minimize interference” in state-legal cannabis programs and to “recommend” to Biden and members of Congress that they “support the removal of cannabis as an item of interest by the ONDCP until a more comprehensive regulatory framework administered at least in part by the federal government is in place.”
Several non-cannabis entities, and individuals from those entities, submitted comments as well, including: Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy; American Association of Nurse Practitioners; Community Catalyst, a national health advocacy group; Masimo, a medical device company; and Phoenix House and RHA Health Services, both of which provide substance use treatment.
Comments varied in scope, from broad calls for reform to a focus on a specific recommendation. A prevention specialist with RHA Health Services called for ”decarceration and decriminalization, while increasing access to harm reduction,” as well as for reparations, for example, while Phoenix House of New York and Long Island wrote to recommend “a new funding program to support new supportive housing infrastructure and programs for behavioral health organizations aimed at helping newly released individuals from incarceration who are on treatment for substance use disorders.”
The Nurse Practitioners’ comments went into more depth than the others, considering their direct role amid the opioid crisis, with recommendations ranging from expanded ONDCP outreach and engagement in rural and underserved communities, increased diversity on federal agency “advisory boards, task forces, and commissions,” better data collection that also accounts for the reality “individual and group barriers and challenges faced by minority and underserved populations differ among different patient populations.”