The United States’ prohibition of marijuana has been a failure on many fronts. Its enforcement has upended countless lives by locking people up for possessing the drug. Its criminalization has disproportionately harmed Black Americans, who are nearly four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses despite similar usage rates. And it has contributed to a lucrative black market that has significantly boosted the revenues of drug cartels.
So in response to what has evidently been bad federal policy, the majority of states, including Massachusetts, have loosened their marijuana laws over the last decade — ranging from decriminalizing the drug to legalizing it for both medical or recreational use. The federal government has been slow to catch up, however, and the result is a patchwork of rules and regulations that has left many Americans behind and put businesses in legally murky territory.
That may soon change, as ending the federal ban on marijuana has been gaining momentum in recent years. For example, 68 percent of Americans now support legalization — more than double the number at the start of the century. That’s why rethinking America’s marijuana laws has become a bipartisan issue, with both Democrats and Republicans introducing different bills to decriminalize the drug in the last few sessions of Congress. And earlier this month, the House passed a bill to decriminalize marijuana, tax cannabis products, expunge criminal records related to some marijuana-related offenses, and make Small Business Administration loans available to businesses in the budding weed industry.
What’s missing from the momentum that has made decriminalizing pot such a salient issue, however, is that it has yet to get the full backing of the president of the United States — a step that would, in and of itself, probably tip the conversation past the point of no return at the federal level.
On the campaign trail, President Biden promised to decriminalize the drug, saying that his administration would work to wipe out criminal records related to it. But the White House has so far been tepid in response to the House bill’s passage and has not yet thrown its full weight behind this specific legislation. It would be a shame if Biden let this opportunity slide, because he could use his bully pulpit to forge a bipartisan path to decriminalization. (Though the House bill mostly passed along party lines, three Republicans voted in favor of it and several Republican senators have previously expressed support for decriminalization.)
Given the pace at which states have begun legalizing and regulating the sale of marijuana, it only makes sense for the federal government to finally catch up. Because the federal government classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 substance — on par with heroin and LSD — it stifles researchers’ ability to test the drug for its medicinal use if they receive federal funds, and it makes operating businesses in the legal weed market difficult. Businesses, for example, can’t qualify for certain tax deductions or credits. They also have difficulties establishing bank accounts or accessing loans to get their businesses off the ground.
That’s ultimately detrimental to both consumers and businesses because the federal government is contributing to an environment where small businesses can’t access the resources that conglomerates have. Barriers to entry, like the high cost of starting a marijuana business and the lack of access to loans, are creating a less competitive market — one that could easily get consumed by a few big businesses, which could ultimately harm consumers with predatory business practices, as the tobacco industry has shown.
But what is arguably the most important factor when considering the federal decriminalization of marijuana is advancing racial justice. Far too many people, disproportionately Black and brown, have been anchored by criminal records, simply for possessing pot, that have held them back from job attainment or career advancement. Expunging those records, as this legislation proposes, helps to begin correcting the wrongs and tragic overreach of the war on drugs.
Passing any legislation in Congress right now is a tall task. But Biden ran on the idea that he could bring both sides of the aisle together to work on common-sense policy solutions to America’s injustices. And as the movement to decriminalize marijuana has begun to attract more and more Republicans, Biden has an opportunity to add another bipartisan win to his domestic agenda. He shouldn’t let it slip through his fingers.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.