Beto For America

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End the War on
  • Drugs
  • People

Legalizing Marijuana in America and Repairing the Injustices of Our Nation’s Drug Policies

In January 2009, Beto O’Rourke, one of the youngest members of the El Paso City Council, introduced a longshot resolution calling for an “honest, open national debate” on ending the prohibition of marijuana. A fourth-generation El Pasoan, Beto had seen the devastating consequences of the War on Drugs firsthand. It had not only failed to achieve its intended results of reducing drug use across America, but it had directly contributed to increased violence in El Paso’s sister city, Juárez, Mexico. Throughout Beto’s life and career in El Paso, he saw the direct link between the prohibition of marijuana, the demand for drugs trafficked across the U.S.-Mexico border, and the devastation black and brown communities across America have faced as a result of our government’s misplaced priorities in pursuing a War on Drugs—which is really a war on people.

To Beto’s surprise, the resolution passed unanimously. But the mayor vetoed the resolution later that day—and Beto and his colleagues on the City Council received veiled threats from then-Congressman Silvestre Reyes to drop the effort, or else federal funding could be withheld from their city. But that moment would not only play a part in Beto’s decision to take on Reyes in the Democratic primary for Congress a few years later, it would spearhead Beto’s leadership on ending the War on Drugs and legalizing marijuana over the next decade. 

In 2011, Beto published the book Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico: An Argument for Ending the Prohibition of Marijuana. Long before the legalization of marijuana was overwhelmingly popular with the American public, Beto laid out his case for ending the decades-long prohibition on marijuana and repairing the damage done to the communities of color that are disproportionately impacted. 


At some point…we must come to a reckoning, much the same way we did 80 years ago, and repeal a prohibition that does more harm than good.”

Beto O’Rourke, 2011

Throughout Beto’s time in Congress, he continued to advance the national conversation around expanding access to medicinal marijuana for veterans and confronting the impact of a War on Drugs that increased mass incarceration, exacerbated violence in Mexico and Central America, and failed to deliver reduced drug use and safer communities. He consistently highlighted how so-called “tough-on-crime” policies that accompanied the War on Drugs accelerated mass incarceration—with disproportionate punishments delivered to people of color and immigrants. And he repeatedly called for the legalization of marijuana, expunging the records of those who have marijuana convictions, and ensuring a legal marijuana industry benefits those disproportionately locked up in our criminal justice system, or locked out of opportunity in America. 

The War on Drugs has been catastrophic for communities of color, and our policy toward marijuana has been particularly egregious. Despite similar rates of use, African-Americans are almost 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Yet, a 2017 survey of marijuana business owners in states allowing them found that only 19% identified as non-white. These statistics tell the story of marijuana laws in our country, where certain communities have been subjected to over-policing and criminalization while others are being presented lucrative business opportunities. Beto is committed to rewriting this story and rectifying the harm caused by decades of unjust marijuana policy.

As President, Beto will:

Legalize Marijuana

In 2017, there were more than 650,000 marijuana arrests in America, with 90.8% of them being only for possession. These arrests, for decades, have disproportionately targeted black and Latino individuals, and research shows that for the same crime prosecutors pursue a mandatory-minimum sentence twice as often for black Americans than white Americans. 

  • Amend federal statutes to lift the federal prohibition on marijuana, legalize marijuana at the federal and state level, and remove it from the controlled substances list;
  • Require licensing for producers, distributors, and sellers to ensure that potency and quality are regulated, as well as to ensure that there is payment of taxes and fees;
  • Allow for marijuana-related business owners to use banks for their businesses;
  • Use clemency power to release those currently serving sentences for marijuana possession and establish a review board to determine whether others currently serving sentences related to marijuana should be released;
  • Expunge the records of those who have been convicted for possession and prevent the conviction from precluding these individuals from accessing housing, employment, education, and federal benefits, or from having their driver’s licenses suspended;
  • Build a model of regulation for marijuana similar to how alcohol is regulated.
    • Limit the sale of marijuana to adults and require proof of age and identification before a customer is allowed to purchase;
    • Require producers, distributors, and sellers to keep their facilities apart from schools, daycares, churches and other incompatible land uses;
    • Conduct an aggressive advertising campaign that outlines the dangers associated with marijuana use, with a strong focus on deterring driving under the influence (DUI) and use by children;
    • Limit smoking of marijuana to private residences and nonpublic spaces;
    • Restrict advertisements of marijuana along the lines of tobacco products, where it is prohibited from appealing to children and the dangers are clearly stated;
    • Invest in development of marijuana breathalyzer technology and ignition interlock devices and scale adoption of DUI laws that integrate the use of those technologies;
    • Track and trace marijuana and related products throughout the distribution chain to monitor for irregularities in quality; and
    • Establish minimum federal sustainability standards for growers with regard to water, energy, and land use efficiency.
  • Remove cannabis-related charges as grounds for deportation or denial of citizenship. The Trump Administration has explicitly targeted those with marijuana possession convictions for deportation, even though marijuana has been legalized in 11 states and the District of Columbia. 
  • Ensure access to medicinal marijuana for all those who need it.  Until federal legislation and reform, allow for nationwide access to marijuana, support the compassionate use of medicinal marijuana as an effective remedy for pain control, PTS, anxiety, and many other conditions, help resolve bureaucratic hurdles, and allow VA physicians to prescribe or recommend medical marijuana. 

Invest revenue from the marijuana industry

Invest revenue from the marijuana industry in communities impacted by the War on Drugs through “Drug War Justice Grants” and Equitable Licensing Programs. The criminalization of marijuana has disproportionately impacted communities of color – time away from family, tarnished records, and economic opportunities lost. The War on Drugs became a war on people – and those people deserve justice. Here’s what we know: not only are people of color more likely to be stopped, arrested and convicted of drug-related offenses, but they are more likely to receive harsher sentences that have lifelong consequences impacting their employment opportunities, housing, public assistance, and their right to vote. Legalizing marijuana will generate massive revenue for those positioned to capitalize on its demand among Americans. Unfortunately, those who have borne the brunt of misguided tough-on-crime policies are not likely to benefit from that economic activity. A 2017 survey of marijuana business owners found that only 19% identified as non-white. 

To guarantee that opportunities to profit from a regulated marijuana market are made available to communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs, Beto will:

  • Call for a federal tax on the marijuana industry, revenue from which will be used to:
    • Provide a monthly “Drug War Justice Grant” to those formerly incarcerated for nonviolent marijuana offenses in state and federal prison for a period based on time served. The grants will be funded completely by the tax on the marijuana industry. 
    • Fund substance use treatment programs.
    • Support re-entry services for those who have been incarcerated for possession.
    • Invest in communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana arrests, including investments in housing and employment support, substance use and mental health treatment, peer and recovery support services, life skills training, victims’ services.
    • Support those disproportionately impacted by marijuana arrests, including those who have been convicted of marijuana possession themselves in participating in the marijuana businesses by providing technical assistance, industry-specific training, access to interest free/low-interest loans, and access to investment financing and legal services.  
  • Ensure those most impacted by the War on Drugs are the ones benefiting from the economic activity related to marijuana. As President, Beto will tie federal funding for criminal justice systems to requirements that states or local governments:
    • Waive licensing fees for producing, distributing, or selling marijuana for low-income individuals who have been convicted of marijuana offenses.
      • Licensing fees can cost up to $120,000, a figure that excludes associated business costs such as legal fees, insurance, taxes, and marketing. These exorbitant fees shut out exactly those who have been unjustly penalized from America’s drug policies from benefiting from a legal marijuana economy.
    • Ensure that the majority of licenses go to minority-owned businesses and those disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, including those who have been convicted of marijuana use or possession themselves.
    • Protect marijuana businesses owned by low-income individuals and people of color from predatory investors and discrimination. In Beto’s small business plan he has outlined steps he would take to root out institutional racism in the small business lending market and expand access to credit for small business owners, including marijuana business owners.