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We should legalize pot to fight the coronavirus, help economy

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  • Coronavirus has left the economy in tatters with millions out of work. 
  • Criminal justice reform has never been more popular, and yet people still keep getting arrested for marijuana-arrested offenses. 
  • Legalization will provide much needed tax revenue and new business opportunities. It will also decrease confrontation between citizens and police. 
  • It’s time (well past the time, really) to just legalize it already. 
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

We’re mired in a global catastrophe. A pandemic, an economic meltdown, and a vacuum of competent governance are all conspiring to make our current moment exceptionally miserable. 

One positive (if still tenuous) development has been the national fervor in support of criminal justice reform. Part and parcel with such reform is drug policy reform. And the simplest drug policy reform is legalizing marijuana. 

Americans can’t reach a consensus on almost anything, but a full two-thirds support full legalization, according to a Pew Research poll from last November. 

There are plenty of reasons that the current moment is ripe to finally make the move towards legalization, and no reason this couldn’t be done if politicians could just get out of their own way. 

This is the right moment to crush the illegitimate market and avoid another “vape panic.” It’ll mean arresting fewer young people, which forever alters their lives for the worse. It gives the public a legal alternative to alcohol, a more destructive drug by magnitudes

At a time when the pandemic-driven economic recession has obliterated jobs and decimated state budgets, legalized cannabis opens up new avenues for tax revenues and creates worlds of economic opportunity. 

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said this week that legalizing marijuana would be “an incredibly smart thing to do,” particularly given the state Senate’s proposal to borrow $9.9 billion. Given the prospect of such an enormous amount of debt, it makes little sense to leave the approximately $300 million a year in potential tax revenue from legalized cannabis is just sitting there.  

Get to work, lawmakers

Given these benefits, it’s a wonder that states — even those that have had trouble with legalization before — aren’t hurrying to move new legislation forward. 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo long opposed legalization until he saw it as an opportunity to revitalize the long stagnant economies in many formerly industrial upstate New York towns. But even with a fully Democratic legislature in a deep blue state, he couldn’t get it passed two years in a row. 

This was in part because Black lawmakers blocked the bill because it didn’t do enough to ensure traditionally minority communities wouldn’t reap some of the financial benefits, particularly since these communities have disproportionately borne the brunt of its criminalization in the form of drug-related crime and arrests. 

Knowing this is a sticking point for a group of legislatures with the power to stop the legislation, why not work this out ahead of time? 

The coronavirus might be keeping lawmakers from doing their business in Albany, but couldn’t they negotiate over Zoom and bring a piece of emergency legislation to the table? 

Governments have already demonstrated they’re willing to rewrite the rules as we go during the pandemic, which includes doing away with some archaic, puritanical bits of red tape — and producing modern miracles like “to-go cocktails.”

State legislatures should do the same for marijuana, especially in states where public opinion is so overwhelming that legalization is all but inevitable anyway. 

You don’t have to love it, but accept the time has come

While states can expedite the legalization process, the federal government also needs to take some steps to make this a reality.

The president cannot legalize marijuana, but he can remove it from its absurd classification as a Schedule I narcotic of the Controlled Substance Act, which are reserved for “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” 

18 members of Congress in 2014 implored then-President Barack Obama to deschedule marijuana off of Schedule I. Obama demurred, insisting it was Congress’ job, which was ironic given the president’s affinity for issuing executive orders with his “pen and phone.”

His vice president and now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, has historically been anti-pot. In fact, he’s been one of the worst drug warriors of all time, writing destructive and scientifically ignorant legislation with the severest punishments available

Biden still won’t go “full legalization,” but he has promised to remove pot from Schedule I. That’s huge.  

Marijuana’s Schedule I designation is the biggest reason banks are skittish about working with legal cannabis businesses.

Despite soaring demand during the pandemic, legal businesses face disadvantages that the fully-legalized alcohol and tobacco industries don’t have to contend with. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom addresses this issue in his most recent budget: 

“Cannabis businesses have less access to banking services that could provide liquidity, have a younger consumer base likely to be disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 recession, and still must contend with competition from the black market.”

Put simply, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s absurd and out-dated definition of cannabis is bad for business. And we can’t afford “bad for business” for no good reason. 

States need to do their part, but the biggest obstacle remains the federal government.

So for the people, for the economy, for justice: legalize it. 

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