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A look at efforts to make legal pot foster social justice

NEW YORK (AP) — Questions about marijuana and social justice have played a prominent role this year in several U.S. states' debates about pot legalization. But other states and cities where recreational or medical marijuana already is legal have also endeavored to make up for the consequences and racial disparities of decades of policing pot.
Efforts have included clearing convictions; trying to carve out a place in the burgeoning cannabis business for minorities, the poor and people with past pot arrests; and channeling pot tax money to communities where arrests were prevalent.
Results have been mixed, fueling arguments from legalization proponents who want new campaigns to do more to combat social inequity and from critics who say legalization only makes it worse.
A look at some initiatives around the country:
When voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2016, they also invited people to petition to have old pot convictions expunged or reduced. But relatively few people went through the expense and time.
Some prosecutors tossed out or reduced thousands of convictions en masse, but many others said they didn't have the resources to identify eligible cases.
Aiming to galvanize the process, lawmakers last year required state justice officials to identify an estimated 220,000 cases statewide by this July. Meanwhile, some local prosecutors have been using technology to pinpoint and dismiss cases.
Some California cities are attempting to promote opportunity for people who were most affected by pot enforcement — for example, by setting aside some marijuana licenses for poor residents with pot convictions and pairing them up with other companies for financial help.
A 2018 state law provides $10 million for local efforts to help such entrepreneurs. But some activists and applicants say programs have been slow-moving and partnerships problematic.
Colorado was one of the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana, and advocates say automatic expungements and other social justice provisions seemed like too much to add to the already pioneering 2012 referendum.
But equity concerns have simmered since legalization — a state report last year found marijuana arrest rates remained higher among blacks than whites, and state and city officials have made some efforts to address the issues.
A 2017 state law lets people ask courts to wipe pot offenses off their records, and a new Denver program aims to make that process easier with an online form. A proposal to make it easier for people with drug convictions to get into the cannabis industry passed the state legislature this spring and is awaiting action from Democratic Gov. Jared Polis.
Maryland's 2013 medical marijuana law required regulators to seek "racial, ethnic and geographical diversity" in awarding licenses. But no black-owned companies were selected for any of the initial 15 growers' licenses in a state where about one in three residents are black.
After lawsuits and a couple of rounds of legislative effort, a 2018 state law added licenses in hopes of diversifying the industry.
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Massachusetts' 2016 recreational pot ballot initiative specifically called for policies to get people "disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement" involved in the legal cannabis industry.
Regulators gave licensing-review priority to black- or Hispanic-owned businesses and aspiring marijuana entrepreneurs from certain areas, among other provisions. Some cities have their own social equity programs.
Still, about 2% of approved licensees statewide so far are minority-owned businesses, though minorities make up as many as 27% when prospective staffers, executives and board members are counted, according to state statistics . License applications are pending from several more minority-owned and "economic empowerment" businesses.
Meanwhile, a 2018 state law allows for expungement of small-scale marijuana possession convictions and some others.
When voters last year made Michigan the first Midwestern state to legalize recreational marijuana, they told regulators to "positively impact" communities where pot enforcement was intense and encourage their residents to participate in the pot business. Officials are working out the details of what that will mean.
Portland voters who approved a city marijuana sales tax in 2016 aimed to devote proceeds partly to small businesses — especially minority- and women-owned businesses — and economic and education programs in communities where pot was heavily policed.
A city auditor's report this month found 16% of the over $8 million tax haul so far has gone to those purposes. About 80% has gone to traffic safety initiatives, and the rest mainly to services for drug and alcohol users.
"The limited money to address the historical effects of cannabis prohibition may not be" what voters who backed the tax expected, the auditors wrote.
More than five years after Washington state legalized marijuana, Seattle officials last year began moving to clear past pot possession misdemeanor convictions automatically, without defendants having to request it. The city estimated up to 600 cases, going back to 1997, would qualify.
This week, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed statewide legislation requiring judges to grant requests to erase many misdemeanor marijuana possession cases that predate legalization. Inslee in January announced a streamlined pardon process for small-time pot convictions, but his initiative had stricter eligibility requirements than the new law.

Posted on Sunday, May 19th, 2019 By Jennifer Peltz, Associated Press

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