Emma Ehrlich, MJLST Staffer
Earlier this month, President Biden announced that he would be pardoning anyone with a federal conviction due to simple marijuana possession charges. This will affect approximately 6,500 people on the federal level, plus thousands of others who were convicted in the District of Columbia. However, this pardon does not cover anyone involved in the actual sale of marijuana or anyone convicted under state possession laws, meaning it affects only a subsection of those who have been convicted of marijuana related charges. The administration’s goal was to give a clean slate to those who were struggling to find housing or employment due to a possession charge, and to encourage state legislatures to do the same.
The second half of President Biden’s announcement was to task the Attorney General with reviewing the federal government’s categorization of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, which President Biden pointed out is currently the same categorization as heroin. Drugs are supposed to be assigned to schedules based on their medical uses and addictive qualities. The Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) currently categorizes marijuana as a “drug with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” The U. S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) explains on their website, almost in a regretful tone, that only four cannabis drugs have been approved by the FDA, one containing CBD and the other three containing synthetically derived THC. This categorization issue is not new, but because legislation regarding marijuana is changing rapidly federal agencies have had to play catch up with the law.
Minnesota and Beyond
Meanwhile, the state of Minnesota is still chugging along in terms of marijuana legalization. In July of this year, the state of Minnesota legalized the production and sale of edibles containing 5-mg of THC, which can now be purchased by adults in bags containing no more than 50-mg of THC. This sounds like good news, but many state residents are baffled at the lack of a tax provision in the new state law. The University of Maryland actually did a study on Minnesota’s potential for taxing cannabis, and determined that if the newly legalized edibles were taxed at the same rate as Michigan taxes, the state could have collected over $40 million. Given this high estimate, it is not out of the question that a tax on marijuana will be implemented in the future.
Minnesotan employers were similarly not thrilled when the law passed as they felt ill equipped to update their drug policies. Employers “can bar workers from using, possessing, and being under the influence of THC during work hours or in the workplace,” as well as conduct “random drug testing for safety-sensitive positions” and “employees suspected of being intoxicated.” The gray area exists in the employer’s ability to hire and fire based on an applicant or employee’s use of marijuana outside of work. It is currently illegal to make hiring and firing decisions based on tobacco usage or alcohol consumption, and it is unclear if marijuana will be treated in the same manner. The added layer to marijuana testing is that a positive drug test for marijuana does not mean an employee consumed THC right before work since THC lingers in the body for so long. Thus, an employee could test positive for mairjuana at work even if they had used the drugs days ago and were no longer feeling its effects. Though the employee would have ingested the drug legally, they may not be considered for a job position or could be fired from a job they already hold. This is the type of issue that has led a number of municipalities in Minnesota to put a pause on the sale of the state legalized edibles. In contrast, California passed a law just last month protecting employees, apart from some exceptions, from being discriminated against based on their marijuana usage when not at work. What might be a little concerning is that California made recreational marijuana legal in 2016, and this law won’t go into effect until 2024, meaning there was an eight year gap in the legislation. Regardless, this may serve as the beginning of a pattern, pointing to what Minnesota may do down the line.
In 2020 New Jersey passed a law legalizing recreational marijuana use which went into effect in April of this year. Similarly to California, part of the law protects workers from being discriminated against because of their marijuana use outside of work. However, Walmart and Sam’s Club have continued to administer drug tests to job applicants to search for traces of marijuana, a practice that has gotten them into legal trouble in New Jersey. Walmart is arguing that only the state Cannabis Regulatory Commission can enforce the new employment law, and that this case should be dismissed because it was brought by individuals. Courts in other states in which similar laws have been passed have issued decisions that oppose Walmart’s position, ruling that individual workers can sue under the law. It seems that Minnesota is not the only state that has enacted fuzzy recreational drug use laws that directly affect employers and employees.
On the bright side of this employment confusion, many appreciate the baby step the Minnesota legislature has taken to legalize marijuana use. The state has been in dire need of updated marijuana legislation, and the hope is that continuing this legalization process will lessen the disparities between black and white arrests for marijuana possession. This change is necessary, because as of 2020 Minnesota was found to rank 8th in the United States for largest racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests. In 2021, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension released data showing that out of the over 6,000 marijuana related arrests made in the state, 90% were for simple possession charges, and a black person was almost five times more likely to be arrested for these types of charges than a white person. This statistic is down from almost eight times more likely back in 2010, but is still extremely present.
President Biden’s pardon is just a beginning step towards moving the US forward on marijuana legislation. Though states such as Minnesota are moving in the right direction by gradually legalizing recreational marijuana use, the laws are often unclear and lead to a multitude of logistical issues like those seen in the employment sector. Regardless, making continued progress is important to the U.S. for many reasons and is crucial for helping to lessen racial arrest disparities. Hopefully this pardon will have the effect the administration aimed for and will encourage more state legislatures to update their policies on marijuana usage.