Cannabis Legalization and Social Equity

Some Opportunities, Puzzles, and Trade-Offs

Published in: Boston University Law Review, Volume 101, Number 3, pages 1003–1041 (May 2021)

Posted on RAND.org on July 16, 2021

by Beau Kilmer, Jonathan P. Caulkins, Michelle Kilborn, Michelle Priest, Kristin Warren

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Cannabis prohibition has created disparate harms—especially for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color ("BIPOC")—largely through arrest disparities for possession and their downstream effects. Addressing inequities is increasingly featured in discussions to legalize cannabis supply and adult possession for nonmedical purposes. While there is little disagreement that these inequities exist, those hoping to use cannabis policy to respond to them have proposed multiple options that each come with their own set of potential benefits and costs. This Essay describes some of these opportunities as well as some major puzzles and trade-offs surrounding the use of cannabis policy to advance social equity. Additionally, it offers insights into the number of people who could benefit from various social equity efforts related to cannabis policy. In particular, sealing or expunging cannabis possession convictions could affect many more BIPOC—possibly close to two orders of magnitude more—than prioritizing these individuals for entrepreneurship or employment opportunities in the cannabis industry. These options are not mutually exclusive, but decision makers should consider the possibility of federal legalization and what it will mean for small cannabis businesses when developing cannabis equity programs.

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