Marijuana policy reform, tobacco harm reduction and racial justice are all at the center of the fight for (or against) three Minnesota bills: HF904, SB1271, and HF600.
As a former director for the Drug Policy Alliance in Colorado and spending years as a police accountability advocate, I assure you the effort to legalize marijuana while also prohibiting flavored tobacco is at odds with solution-based logic.
Gov. Tim Walz has said he favors ending marijuana prohibition and last month called on lawmakers to pursue legalization as a means to “boost the economy and promote racial justice.”
So, although the governor pursues a boost to the economy and racial justice, he and many others miss the overall goal of legalization – to address criminal justice and public health issues while promoting racial justice. However, this thinking leads to a question: How can you end marijuana prohibition to promote racial justice yet look to repeat the mistake with a ban on menthol cigarettes?
Studies show that due to either higher taxes or a possible statewide ban, the resulting illegal sales of menthols are more likely to be concentrated in communities of color. This results in public safety issues, greater police presence, citations, fines, and arrests for selling a product that for 50 years has been legal. There are unintended consequences to being Black and in possession of tobacco or selling loosies, and we do not need another George Floyd nor Eric Garner.
Marijuana policy reform
Legalizing marijuana simply allows the Legislature to bring the product above ground, add much needed regulation, and further tighten the roadblocks to youth access.
This same logic should apply to tobacco: keep these products above ground where they have restrictions that allow access to only adults who choose them.
Prohibition is a close-your-eyes-and-bury-your-head-in-the-sand approach to drug policy. Those who support blanket prohibitions of popular substances are wishing on a star that somehow the substance will magically disappear. The advocates of HF600 know this, yet the advocates of the flavored tobacco bans are choosing to ignore this clear causality. I agree with legislators who say that support for both bills is “incredibly inconsistent.”
The cannabis bill includes many safeguards against underage use. Minnesota currently has a 21+ mandate for tobacco sales, and many jurisdictions only allow certain products to be sold in adult establishments. These safeguards are solutions to youth access and are driving down access to tobacco products.
Before passing a blanket ban, legislators in Minnesota should bolster its state laws and allow these tighter regulations to take root. Besides, federal regulations such as the PACT Act prohibit online sales of vape products from coinciding with the ban on online cigarette sales. Decision-makers are finally placing tight regulations on an industry that previously took full advantage of a lax regulatory environment. The marijuana industry has never received a lax climate and was tightly regulated from its inception.
A compromise is prudent, one that relies on further advertising and online restrictions, additional restrictions on statewide adult-use establishments, and most importantly, targeted behavioral health and prevention dollars to address the issue head-on.
I urge the Minnesota Legislature to do the hard work of developing a nuanced policy that addresses these areas, from a public health and public safety standpoint, rather than a blanket prohibition that leads to more racial injustice issues while also increasing the state's current illicit market ranking.
Art Way is a national drug policy expert, the former director for the Colorado chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance and a member of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP).