Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro proposed a criminal justice plan pledging that if he is elected president he will legalize marijuana, expunge prior cannabis convictions and invest in communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition.
The “First Chance Plan,” released on Wednesday, is designed to take a preventative approach to people entering the criminal justice system while also providing resources for those who’ve already been incarcerated. The 2020 Democratic candidate pointed to the war on drugs as an example of a policy that “became a siege against people who are poor, the most vulnerable individuals, and the most marginalized communities.”
“Today more than 2 million people are incarcerated, and more than half a million folks are locked up for non-violent drug offenses, disproportionately young African American and Latino men,” he said. “The human costs are staggering: families torn apart, billions wasted in taxpayer dollars, and the lost potential of a generation.”
Castro said punitive federal drug laws, including the 1994 crime bill that another candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, played a leading role in enacting, have “enabled the over-policing of communities of color, creating a system of mass incarceration and a less just nation.”
To correct the problem, addiction should be treated like a public health issue, Castro said. Treating the problem through the criminal justice system has “shattered communities, strengthened criminal groups, and locked up those who did not deserve it.”
While not explicitly endorsing the decriminalization of drug possession as some other candidates have, Castro is calling to “end the War on Drugs” and “address the opioid crisis and other challenges of drug addiction as primarily public health issues, not seek to further harm the individuals and communities suffering addiction.”
“As president, I will bring our misguided War on Drugs to an end.”
That involves legalizing cannabis, expunging the records of those with non-violent marijuana convictions on their record and placing a federal tax on sales, while using that revenue to help those most impacted by prohibition.
“We will regulate the market and place a tax on all recreational sales, investing billions in revenue generated in the communities disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs,” the plan says.
In order to promote equity in the legal industry, Castro said he would also create grant programs “that support minority-owned businesses and prioritize people directly affected by the war on drugs in receiving marijuana business licenses.”
The wide-ranging plan also includes proposals to end drug sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine, as well as launch a federal review of all sentencing guidelines to stop other racial disparities.
Castro said he’d launch initiatives aimed at preventing misuse of what he called “dangerous” drugs and treating addiction. Further, he pledged that pharmaceutical companies whose actions contributed to the country’s opioid problem would be held accountable “for their role in the suffering of millions. ”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-IVT), a rival presidential candidate, rolled out his own marijuana-focused plan on Thursday that pledges to deschedule the substances within the first 100 days of his administration, ban tobacco companies from participating in the industry and encourage nonprofit business models.
And former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), another contender, also released a plan on Thursday that emphasizes the need to treat addiction in the public health sector. His proposals include decriminalizing possession of all drugs and investing in harm reduction programs such as needle exchanges and supervised consumption sites.
Like several other presidential candidates, Castro said he would use presidential clemency powers to immediately affect change in the criminal justice system. He pledged to create an independent commission to review the thousands of cases of non-violent drug offenders serving time in federal prison, with the panel making recommendations to him about clemency opportunities.
“This is the single biggest step we can take to immediately reduce the unacceptable size of our prison population and set an example for the rest of the country that the era of mass incarceration must end,” he said.
“There are an estimated 17,000-plus people serving unjust and excessive sentences in federal prisons right now, often for non-violent drug offenses.”
He is also pledging to “pass legislation requiring states that receive benefits to lift the lifetime ban on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits for people with felony drug convictions.”
Notably, Castro recognized that reform in the federal prison system isn’t enough to end mass incarceration. That’s why he’s proposing “a top-to-bottom audit of every federal dollar to find the ways in which the federal government subsidizes cruel and harmful practices in state and local prison systems, and support efforts to redirect resources towards restorative justice.”
Other non-drug specific reform proposals in his plan include abolishing cash bail and mandatory minimum sentences, ending the death penalty and solitary confinement and restoring voting rights for individuals who were incarcerated.