Equitable Legalization of Adult-Use in the Name of Healthcare Justice

Last February, the Maryland General Assembly signaled its interest in legalizing adult-use cannabis by creating a task force to study the matter. As a Political Director in the nation’s largest healthcare workers’ union representing caregivers in Maryland and the District of Columbia, I know that we must pass equitable adult-use legalization in the name of healthcare justice. 

The state already has an expanding medical industry, with $109 million dollars in sales in 2018 and double the revenue expected for 2019. As healthcare workers, 1199SEIU’s members see every day the positive treatment that medical cannabis offers to patients experiencing nausea, chronic pain, and anxiety. Studies have shown that when people have access to medical cannabis, prescription rates of addictive opioids decrease significantly and almost 25% fewer people die of opioid overdoses. Maryland ranks in the top 5 states for opioid overdoses, even with our current medical cannabis laws. In part, that’s because there are significant barriers to accessing medical cannabis, especially for poor and Black and Brown communities. So, while medical use has been a beneficial form of care, it is often not accessible to all. Furthermore, Maryland has not done enough to combat the continued inequities brought on by the disastrous War on Drugs. 

“…full legalization of adult-use cannabis is a healthcare justice issue because the racist enforcement of its prohibition has destroyed the health of many Black and Brown families.”

The current system in Maryland requires that qualifying patients purchase a $50 ID card once they have been assessed by an approved doctor, a visit not covered by health insurance with costs of around $200. This means that people expend significant time, energy, and money, even before they find and purchase their medical cannabis. These present significant barriers for low-income communities, thus denying them the holistic care that is available to wealthier Marylanders.

More broadly than access to medical cannabis, full legalization of adult-use cannabis is a healthcare justice issue because the racist enforcement of its prohibition has destroyed the health of many Black and Brown families. As In These Times reported, despite similar rates of cannabis use, Black people are almost 4 times as likely that white people to be arrested for cannabis and almost half of people arrested on possession-only charges in 2017 were Black or Latinx people. We know that arrests and incarceration have a negative effect on entire communities’ physical and mental health. 

In the name of healthcare justice, then, the Maryland state legislature should adopt similar measures to those passed by Illinois last year. In addition to legalizing adult-use cannabis, the Illinois law expunges the records of people with lower-level cannabis charges, making it more possible for once-targeted people to find decent jobs and housing. The law also privileges “social equity applicants” for dispensary licenses and special access to financing, defining such applicants as Illinois residents who have lived for a decade or more in neighborhoods with disproportionately high arrest and incarceration rates for cannabis possession. By privileging such applicants for dispensary licenses and start-up funds, Illinois has made it possible for communities that were systematically targeted for cannabis possession to build some wealth from the new industry. Finally, the law puts 25% of cannabis sales into a fund that will re-invest in communities ravaged by the devastating War on Drugs. In these ways, this legislation begins to address the negative effects that racist prohibition enforcement has had on communities of color. The Maryland state legislature should take similar – if not stronger – measures to ensure racial equity in its cannabis industry. 

In addition to adopting these measures, Maryland legislators should also promote economic equity in this new industry by ensuring that workers are employed in good, steady, union jobs. From our experiences in the healthcare field, we know that union jobs promote financial security, career advancement, and workplace power for workers at the same time that they promote better health outcomes for patients. Knowing this, Maryland should create rules that facilitate collective bargaining in the cannabis industry. Moreover, the state could create incentives for hiring “social equity applicants” for union jobs in the cannabis industry. That way, we can begin to right the wrongs for entire communities and not limit the benefits to community members who can afford to open a dispensary. Maryland can be a leader by creating a brand new industry full of good, family-sustaining, union jobs at companies owned and run by the very communities who were held back by racist enforcement and mass criminalization.  

Ultimately, we have the chance to create an adult-use cannabis industry in Maryland that expands access to medical cannabis, begins to right the wrongs of the disastrous War on Drugs, and secures good jobs for all. As a leader in the largest healthcare union in the country, I urge the state legislature to take this opportunity in the 2020 Legislative Session to make Maryland a beacon of healthcare justice in the cannabis industry. 

Ricarra Jones is political director for the Maryland/DC Division of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the nation’s largest healthcare workers union.

The opinions expressed in this post are the author’s own and are independent of the views of CannabizMD.