(CN) – Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke unveiled a plan Thursday to legalize marijuana nationwide and help those he says have been marginalized by the war on drugs, including awarding grants to people who were once incarcerated for nonviolent marijuana crimes.
O’Rourke released his plan two days after he had a roundtable chat in Los Angeles with members of Equity First, a coalition of social justice activists and cannabis entrepreneurs, who told him that people who have done time for drug offenses make up less than 1% of the $10 billion legal marijuana industry.
The stance is nothing new for O’Rourke. As a member of the City Council in his hometown of El Paso, he introduced a resolution in 2009 advocating for the repeal of ineffective marijuana laws.
He also co-wrote the 2011 book “Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico,” in which he linked marijuana prohibition to the high murder rate in El Paso’s sister city Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as cartels battle for control of smuggling routes into the U.S.
O’Rourke is focused on giving a leg up to minorities he says have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
He said he would use presidential clemency-granting powers to release those incarcerated for marijuana possession and expunge the convictions from their records.
He’d also mandate most licenses for marijuana grow operations and dispensaries go to minority-owned businesses and licensing fees be waived for poor people with marijuana possession convictions.
O’Rourke is further calling for awarding “drug war justice grants” to people imprisoned for nonviolent marijuana offenses after they are released, funded by a federal tax on the marijuana industry.
“White communities have been given the vast majority of lucrative business opportunities, while communities of color still face over-policing and criminalization,” he said in a statement.
“It’s our responsibility to begin to remedy the injustices of the past and help the people and communities most impacted by this misguided war,” he added.
According to O’Rourke, there were more than 650,000 marijuana arrests in the U.S. in 2017, more than 90% of them for possession.
Those figures are startling given that 30 states had legalized either medical or recreational marijuana use by 2017.
O’Rourke, 46, played bass guitar in a punk band when he was in college and acknowledged at Tuesday’s roundtable he has smoked weed.
With the nation’s growing acceptance of marijuana, the lack of controversy over O’Rourke’s openness about experimenting with the drug stands in stark contrast to the blowback from Bill Clinton’s admission on the presidential campaign trail in 1992 that he smoked pot but didn’t inhale as a college student in the 1960s.
Polling in the single digits, O’Rourke is not expected to win the Democratic nomination for president. But he’s won kudos from his fellow Democratic candidates for his fierce calls for more gun control after a white man shot and killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso last month.
Minutes before opening fire with a type of rifle similar to an AK47, the shooter reportedly posted a manifesto online stating, “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
Asked at the Sept. 12 presidential debate in Houston if he would force owners of AR15 rifles, which have been used in several mass shootings, to sell them to the government O’Rourke said, “Hell yes. We’re going to take your AR15, your AK47. We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”