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Social Responsibility and Allowing the Use of Cannabis Products

USA Track and Field Athlete Sha'Carri Richardson - Credit: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

As I mature I find myself questioning what I've been taught about cannabis in my youth. I've been taught it's harmful. I've been told it's a gateway drug and that if consumed I'd surely spiral downward to inevitable peril. There's no question that if we'd had a conversation about cannabis a decade ago I would've told you cannabis has few places in society. I would've told you it was illegal and those who consume, distribute and possess it should be punished. I would've double-downed on the onus of law makers and law enforcement to crack down on the suppliers and dealers to save humanity from that harmful substance. I would've told you we were close to winning "the War on Drugs".

But, in my estimation that old-world way of thinking must be reexamined by companies, law makers, and other authoritative bodies that regulate (or in many cases restrict) the use of cannabis products.

If you're a fan of the summer Olympics and Team USA like me, then you're probably disappointed to hear that American sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson will not be running on the relay team in Tokyo. She was not on the roster released by USA Track and Field. Richardson would technically be eligible as her 30-day suspension will end before the relay starts on August 5th. Of course, rules are rules. We can debate the logic, the rights and wrongs and ethics of banning Richardson after testing positive for a drug that's not a performance enhancer, not to mention a drug that's legal or at least decriminalized in many states. And while I think Richardson is a microcosm of a much larger issue in America, we're not debating her specific situation here.

Rather, we're going to broach the topic of whether or not it's more socially responsible to just reverse the current restrictions placed on cannabis products across the board with the following questions in mind; are antiquated rules and laws that restrict the use of cannabis products disproportionately impacting communities of color? Would society be better off by eliminating many of the punitive measures cannabis users face? Would the economy flourish with a new taxable industry? Should employers rethink their testing policies for all these reasons?

These are all questions that are still highly debated to my surprise.

Partial poster photo from the 1930's film Reefer Madness

Much has changed since 1936.

I believe strong communication has quickly replaced the power tie in most establishments. If you're an artful communicator or are skillful at using communication tools then you have a leg up. Why? Because information and knowledge is power, and we're constantly receiving it through many mediums. Unfortunately, knowledge can also be weaponized to benefit one's agenda. And while we see this front and center with the wide dissemination (and crackdown) of "fake news" and misinformation, I imagine this was also the case in the 1930's, albeit with fewer communication channels.

Insert Reefer Madness, an exploitation film about marijuana use.

You've probably heard of this film, or maybe one of its satirical versions. In many ways society's aversion towards marijuana (at least in the United States) can be traced all the back to this film. The movie, set in the first half of the 1900's connects the use of marijuana (as a gateway drug) to other criminalistic behaviors like manslaughter, attempted murder and even the eventual descent into maddening addition that may contribute to suicide. The film sells the idea that cannabis use fuels these violent behaviors. That's quite a leap.

Without going into all the details the movie essentially places marijuana in the same category as other narcotics like heroin and LSD. While I'm not a doctor, a scientist or cannabis expert, my feeling is that marijuana is not in the same ballpark, not in the same league and it's not even the same sport. Unfortunately when science is unclear or nonexistent it becomes very easy to mislead people. In this case through the gross visual mischaracterization combined with cherry-picked data and deceptive usage of words, marijuana received a bad reputation through the hit piece that is Reefer Madness.

Fast forward to present date, while the movie wasn't the only contributing factor to our current marijuana laws, I suspect it played a role. Why? Because I still hear people cite references from dated knowledge and information that gave birth to the movie.

So, I believe it's time that we give the findings another look. We've already legalized marijuana in eighteen states and the District of Columbia. It's also decriminalized in over thirty states and legal for medicinal use in over thirty-five states. Of course we can hem and haw over the specifics, but the point is the cat's out of the bag. It's here in a big way, it's here to stay, and maybe the mixed messaging by way of enforceable laws and punitive measures (It's legal in some states, illegal federally, still banned by many employers, but overlooked by some) are just hurting us.

Jail - Photo by Matthew Ansley on Unsplash

The gift that keeps on giving... but more so for communities of color.

There's no question we've locked up too many people on the account of marijuana. According to the ACLU's analysis, of all the arrests made in the United States, over half of them were for marijuana.

And yes, you read that correctly. That's analysis of all-time arrests from the beginning of when recording arrests started. Additionally, the ACLU's research shows that just from the year 2001 to 2010, 88% of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests were made for simply possessing the drug. Imagine being at a traffic stop, getting a simple pat-down and the officer finding a gram of marijuana in your pocket. Boom, that's it. Now you're a statistic. Not to mention, these arrests are another reminder that the current laws and practices are consistently disproportionately impacting communities of color despite roughly equal usage of the drug. Black Americans are over three times more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested for marijuana.

So, knowing this, you can make a strong argument that incarceration for marijuana arrests is one of the biggest racial justice issues one can work to tackle. Those who should consider making this a policy issue include law makers, corporations (as employers) and non-profit organizations (as advocates).

Think about this for one second, most of the arrests on record are for the consumption, distribution and possession of a drug that's now legal in eighteen states and decriminalized in more than thirty. Often times those incarcerated are now tagged with a misdemeanor or felony conviction. Both of those will follow that person for years (or their entire life). It disproportionately impacts Black Americans, and in many cases their employability, ability to volunteer in some capacities, ability to apply for student loans and even in some places prevent those with marijuana convictions from renting an apartment.

Based on a marijuana conviction your ability to thrive in society is in jeopardy. It's hard to find meaningful employment, it's hard to obtain higher forms of education, could in some cases create barriers to housing, and oh by the way a stigma may now follow you. But here's the kicker, it's not like these barriers simply go away when marijuana is legalized. Nope, you could've had a marijuana conviction prior to your state legalizing it, and the record still remains unless you go through the process to get your record expunged. That's absolutely crazy when you think about it. So, while legalization changes some of that, it's only the first step.

We can think about legalizing it, and many states have. But assuming one doesn't expunge their record, I imagine that conviction will follow. And on top of that, employers may still screen for marijuana prior to or during a persons employment. So, even if it's legal in a specific state, it could be grounds for termination. In the case of Richardson, it was grounds for suspension. Mind you she's no longer a collegiate athlete. She chose to forgo her collegiate eligibility to go professional. Running is her livelihood.

CBD oils - Photo by Hanf garten on Unsplash

The cannabis industry is here to stay.

Cannabis products range from CBD oil for anxiety, CBD-based lotions and skincare products, dog treats, edibles in the form of candy, hot sauce, and honey, clothing and textiles made from hemp and much, much more. And the industry is growing. The cannabis industry in the United States is projected to hit $30 billion dollars by the year 2025 (assuming it's still largely illegal by then). Let me help put that number in perspective. The Healthcare industry (Pharmaceutical manufacturing and sales, genetic testing, workplace drug testing, and all of the hospitals and medical services) in the United States is just shy of that $30 billion dollar mark now.

If you think about it, we may actually be ignoring what our economy needs this very second in our recovery. Just like ending prohibition of alcohol in part fueled a recovery from The Great Depression, cannabis could fuel a recovery from our economic downturn due to COVID-19. Maybe not an apples to apples comparison, but I think there are many parallels. I should add that even this time last year during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many states considered cannabis to be "essential business", leaving them open because they offered a product some needed, it was taxable thus creating revenue for the state, and allowed business owners to continue operating.

Let's break this down quickly. Currently, the cannabis industry employs a quarter million people. That's more than four times the number of people employed by the coal industry. And mind you, to me that's very much scratching the surface of potential given the industry is still considered illegal federally. Think of the potential jobs if it were in fact legal like alcohol sales.

To add to this, it's estimated that if fully legal, cannabis sales could result in over $128 billion dollars in tax revenue and close to 1.6 million new jobs. The caveat is if it were legal like alcohol. Not only could we position the United States for increased tax revenue and jobs, but I also imagine we would make a partial dent in Mexican drug cartel revenue resulting from illicit cannabis trafficking. It may not completely disappear, but just like ending the prohibition of alcohol reduced a substantial portion of illicit alcohol sales, I imagine that too would happen with cannabis.

This is on top of reducing the mass incarceration resulting from marijuana arrests (remember those 8.2 million arrests from 2001 to 2010). So, legalization of cannabis is a win against incarceration, it's a win for taxable revenue and the economy, it's a win for those consuming and it's a loss for drug cartels. Last but not least, while much of the cannabis industry isn't operating in an environmentally sustainable way, the industry has an opportunity to really forge a new path for a sustainable future using better practices.

Regardless, cannabis products are still taboo and stigmatized. I imagine this is in part due to the punitive actions still taken against those who consume cannabis. So, employers and large governing bodies may need to rethink their hiring, termination and suspension policies.

Urinalysis sample bottles

Drug testing practices may be outdated.

I get it, there are risks for employers. They don't want employees operating under the influence of drugs that impair their motor-functions, decision making ability and sound judgement. 100% agree with that. It makes sense that employers would restrict the use of drugs that have those effects. When I was in the Armed Forces there was a zero tolerance policy. If you tested positive for any banned substances you were gone immediately. And it's still like this for government jobs across the board.

But does this type of enforcement need to exist in every industry, for every profession, every type of job? Probably not. I suspect it depends on the type of work required to be performed. If someone is a heavy equipment operator, drives a vehicle for a living, works in security, law enforcement or the military, is a first responder, a doctor or in any other type of profession where life and death hang in the balance, it's probably a good idea they're sober in every sense of the word.

That said, many of these professions allow for the consumption of alcohol, albeit not on the job. So, I think it's fair to ask the question, how long does alcohol remain in your system and affect your motor-functions, decision making and judgement?

How does this compare to marijuana?

I honestly don't know the answer, but I suspect someone does. And I know someone has done the math because there are in fact employers that don't screen for marijuana and don't care if their employees use it recreationally. I also suspect there are pros and cons any employer thinking of drug testing must think about. Some of these may include whether or not their employees work in a safety-sensitive environment where dangerous actions are carried out regularly, or if their employees are in a setting requiring them to be the responsible party (like a teacher, childcare professional or working with the elderly).

But, I would submit that another consideration should include whether or not the practice of drug testing for cannabis disproportionately impacts people from diverse communities. While this is a largely debated topic, I do know that statistically Black Americans (and generally other communities of color) are more negatively hurt by drug testing policies. For example, Black Americans may face harsher punishment for positive drug tests than their white counterparts. It's also been documented that managers may believe to a greater degree their Black employees as being drug users. And according to the ACLU, drug testing practices may be considered an unnecessary invasion of privacy because they can single out employees who live on the spectrum of poverty. Because of the disproportionate impact on communities of color, some would consider these policies as racist.

By enforcing this type of testing policy, do we unintentionally hurt communities of color? Do we limit or restrict our talent pool when seeking new employees, and do we actually sabotage our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts as a result? Do we only continue to reinforce the power structures that got us here? Do we unintentionally limit the transformational change we're seeking? My answer to all of those is "yes, probably". We're literally seeing that unfold on the national stage right now.

The last thing I'll say is this... it's a complicated issue, but as a proud American who served in the Armed Forces for love of country, it would give me great joy to see Richardson represent the country in the summer Olympics on Team USA, positive marijuana test result and all. If we're to send our best, brightest and most gifted athletes out on the world stage to compete on behalf of the country, we must do so accepting all their talents along with their imperfections as humans. And in this particular case Richardson is in many cases represents what America is... imperfectly great. After all, she didn't take a performance enhancer, she consumed a drug that's legal in some states and decriminalized in many. And while we have to accept the determination made by USA Track and Field, perhaps this can be an educational moment for law makers, companies and governing bodies still harboring outdated policy and law that are still impacting too many.

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