Playboy's CEO Urges Congress To Pass The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment And Expungement Act
“Keep up the fight.”
Those were the words of a Playboy reader, in 1969, outraged over the case of a Texas man who was sentenced to 50 years in prison for selling a $5 bag of cannabis. Later that year, another reader revealed that he’d been busted for 0.87 milligrams — about “four seeds and 15 grains of leaf” — while a third explained that her husband faced 10 years in jail after being caught with the equivalent of a dime-sized bud.
The letters continued to pile up, when Hugh Hefner, then Playboy’s editor, received a proposal from a young lawyer named Keith Stroup. Keith was an anti-war activist who’d been radicalized by the Vietnam War, and had moved to Washington determined to start the country’s first pro-pot advocacy group. He needed funding.
Playboy wrote him a $5,000 check.
That check would be the foundation on which NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — the oldest and largest cannabis advocacy organization in the country — would be founded. In the 1970s, with Playboy’s support, the organization led successful efforts to decriminalize minor cannabis offenses in 11 states and significantly lower cannabis penalties in all others.
Advocating for decriminalizing and legalizing cannabis was a radical act back then. In 1970, in the midst of what would become President Richard Nixon’s now-infamous war on drugs, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which classified drugs based on their perceived medical value and threat of abuse. Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, and against the advice of Nixon’s own team of experts, cannabis was classified as Schedule I — the most restrictive of five categories, alongside heroin.
1975 NORML Ad run in Playboy Magazine, Cartoon by B. Kliban
Fifty years later, cannabis remains a Schedule I substance — illegal on a federal level, with harsh penalties and restrictions on research — even as the benefits of decriminalization and legalization have become abundantly clear.
States that have legalized the medical or recreational use of cannabis — 33 in all, with at least four that will put recreational legalization on the ballot in November — have shown substantial gains in tax revenue, job creation and investment opportunities. (In Illinois, for example, the state brought in $52 million in the first half of 2020 — money the state’s governor vowed to reinvest into local communities.) But, despite positive headlines from some states like Colorado and California, things haven’t changed for most Americans. Some Americans are able to tap into these financial benefits (cannabis businesses are even considered an essential service during a pandemic), while others in neighboring states still go to jail for the same product. Too many still live under the same laws since the 1970s — or worse, including no-knock warrants, mandatory minimum sentences and policies leading us to be the most incarcerated country in the world.
Combined, states recently spent $3.6 billion on enforcing possession laws, and recent data shows more than 600,000 cannabis-related arrests each year, the majority of them Black and Brown. Despite Black and White Americans consuming cannabis at the same rate, a report this year from the ACLU found that Black Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for its use. It is not an overstatement to say we now know the criminalization of cannabis to be a deeply racist policy.
Moreover, where cannabis has been legalized there has not been a rise in illicit drug use nor a hike in violent crime, two oft-cited arguments against it. Today, two thirds of adults in the U.S. support cannabis legalization — including a majority of Republicans.
Before the end of the year, Congress is set to vote on the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, known as the MORE Act, which would remove cannabis from the list of scheduled drugs once and for all.
With support from more than 50 law enforcement professionals who recently sent a letter to Congress, the bill would effectively end the war on cannabis at the federal level, eliminating criminal penalties for anyone who manufactures, distributes or possesses it. Individual states would still have the power to legalize, or not legalize, cannabis on their own, but they would no longer be at odds with the federal government on how to do it.
This is a long overdue, and necessary first step.
MORE has the potential to accelerate state-by-state commercialization. To ensure this potentially multi-billion dollar industry is inclusive of those historically targeted, we must increase small-business loans to Black and Latino entrepreneurs entering the cannabis industry.
It could open up federal and university research into the pharmaceutical benefits of the plant. One area particularly worth studying is the value of cannabis to our veterans community, specifically as treatment for PTSD and as an alternative to opioids.
It also creates important provisions that would expunge some cannabis criminal records, and create community reinvestment programs — by way of grants — that would fund job training, education, youth mentorship and legal aid reserved for those most harmed by cannabis prohibition, which continues to disproportionately affect communities of color.
Playboy has been a champion of civil liberties since its inception. And since that first $5,000 donation, we have continued to advocate for fairer and more equitable drug laws. Organizations like NORML, the Marijuana Policy Project, the Last Prisoner Project, and the Veterans Cannabis Project, to name a few, are continuing this fight to change policy and help those unjustly affected, but they need our collective support.
Anyone who knows us knows we never shy away from controversy. But cannabis law should no longer be controversial. Society is there. It’s well past time for the law to catch up.
I encourage you to contact your representatives and encourage them to bring the MORE Act to a vote — and vote yes.
Let’s keep up the fight.
Versión en Español en El Planteo: Carta Abierta del CEO de Playboy a Favor de una Ley Federal de Marihuana
Illustration by Rob Stites.
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