Two years ago, the hemp industry reached a widely celebrated landmark — prohibition was over after more than seven decades, or at least that’s what the headlines read. More accurately, a section of the Farm Bill directed the USDA to transition hemp production from a pilot research program to a fully regulated option for U.S. farmers. Even though this section removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, lawmakers tucked in a provision that perpetuates the same racist intentions of prohibition.
Tucked away in the widely celebrated legalization of hemp is the following provision:
“Any person convicted of a felony relating to a controlled substance under the State of Federal law shall be ineligible… to produce hemp under any regulations or guidelines issued”
At its best, the provision represents a curious unwillingness to admit the mistakes of making hemp illegal in the first place. From a more cynical perspective, this was a concerted effort by Senate Republicans to block the opportunity of a promising new industry from those who have suffered most from decades of failed drug policy. There are countless stories of pre-legalization cannabis entrepreneurs sent to jail for transactions that billion-dollar companies now complete every day. If Congress truly intended to establish the U.S hemp industry as a global leader, the knowledge and experience of these early entrepreneurs are critically important.
As destructive as the ban on felons is to industry growth, it also serves to be yet another barrier of entry for people of color. According to the ACLU, black individuals are more than three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though usage is statistically equivalent. These arrests can not even be couched in the familiar defense of targeting informal market trade, because 89.6% of them were for possession alone. According to our estimates, the ban would prevent at least 50,000 individuals from even touching a hemp plant.
As farmers begin applying for the new USDA hemp growing license or to their State's federally approved program, they are faced with completing a background check. Individuals with any prior drug-related conviction will be rejected.
At a time of reckoning in American society around the gross injustices people of color face in business and our criminal justice system, we have an opportunity to get it right in our industry. Cannabis legalization must be led with inclusion and a keen eye on the injustices stemming from decades of failed drug policy. With hemp being the first form of cannabis legalized federally, how can we overlook this overt attempt at exclusion, capitalizing on past injustices, and racism?
Congress must act to repeal Sec. 297B(e)(3)(B)(i) of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 immediately. There is no legal or practical justification for keeping this ban in place, and it is entirely antithetical to the intent of Congress to recognize hemp as an agricultural commodity.
Prohibition was born out of racism. The war on drugs decimated communities of color. Legalization must not perpetuate these failures. As an industry, we must reject racism and embrace inclusion.
Repeal the felon ban.