Ensuring Marijuana Reform is Effective Criminal Justice Reform

Douglas A. Berman 
Newton D. Baker-Baker & Hostetler Chair in Law
Executive Director, Drug Enforcement and Policy Center
The Ohio State University

Alex Kreit 
Assistant Professor of Law
Director, Center for Addiction Law & Policy
Northern Kentucky University

Now that Arizona has legalized marijuana via ballot initiative, we focus on steps that Arizona policymakers and advocates who are interested in improving the criminal justice system can take to ensure that legalization best advances this goal.  

This essay discusses how Arizona should best advance marijuana legalization so that it can significantly improve Arizona’s criminal justice system. Now that Arizona has legalized marijuana via ballot initiative, we focus on steps that Arizona policymakers and advocates who are interested in improving the criminal justice system can take to ensure that legalization best advances this goal. We review generally the history of marijuana prohibition, its role in criminal enforcement today, and the movement to enact state legalization laws before turning our attention to Arizona’s marijuana reform history culminating now in the passage of the 2020 legalization initiative, the Smart and Safe Arizona Act. We then provide recommendations for policymakers and other concerned parties about how to ensure modern marijuana reforms in Arizona (and elsewhere) can and should help build a reform infrastructure that could not only ensure record relief to redress past marijuana convictions but also address broader criminal justice issues that historically intersect with marijuana prohibition.

Key Findings:

  • Arizona’s passage of a full legalization initiative is part of a national trend toward marijuana reforms that seems likely to continue.

  • Marijuana prohibition has long been fueled by pernicious racialized attitudes, and enforcement of prohibition exacerbates racial inequities, and these realities are playing a role in support for robust modern reforms.

  • The Smart and Safe Arizona Act includes important provisions to facilitate expungement of some prior marijuana convictions and to fund justice reforms, but these provisions are only small steps toward needed broader reforms.

Key Recommendations:

  • The Arizona State Legislature should enact laws to effectively implement and expand the expungement provisions in The Smart and Safe Arizona Act, following the lead of states like California and Illinois by developing processes for automatic expungement of at least some number of prior marijuana offenses.

  • The Arizona State Legislature should direct resources generated by the Smart and Safe Arizona Act to a permanent government agency that can monitor and advocate for equitable marijuana enforcement practices after legalization, and for equitable drug enforcement more broadly.

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