Karen O’Keefe | Director of States Policies, Marijuana Policy Project
Karen O’Keefe manages grassroots and direct lobbying efforts in state legislatures for the largest marijuana policy reform organization in the United States — the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). Karen and her team played a key role in the passage of the only two legalization laws to be enacted via state legislatures (rather than ballot measure), along with nine (9) medical marijuana laws and six (6) decriminalization laws.
Karen earned her J.D. from Loyola School of Law, New Orleans where she was awarded the Gillis Long Public Service Award. In her free time, she has been a volunteer tutor and has been active in a number of causes, including against the death penalty, torture, and the Iraq war, and in support of safe bicycling infrastructure and affordable housing.
When building the cannabis industry from the ground up, why is gender parity so important?
More than half of the U.S. population is female, yet less than 15% of executive officers are women. Many of the reasons for legalizing and regulating marijuana are rooted in concerns for fairness, justice, and equality. As this new industry develops, it can and should keep these values in mind and reflect our diverse society far better than corporate America.
What social justice and/or criminal justice reforms do you want the US to make around its drug policy, particularly around cannabis?
It should be legal for adults to cultivate, possess, and purchase cannabis. Punishing adults for using a substance that is safer than alcohol is irrational and devastates families, involves glaring inequalities, and derails futures. For minors, marijuana should be a non-criminal offense that does not result in incarceration, and both minors and adults should be allowed to use medical cannabis. In addition, states should make legalization retroactive — freeing prisoners and people on probation and expunging records. Parole, probation, and pre-trial should not be revoked for cannabis.
MPP also advocates for provisions in legalization laws to ensure people who were arrested for cannabis, and/or who were from communities disproportionately targeted benefit from the legalized industry. This incudes training for good cannabis jobs and prioritization and support in cannabis business licensing, including start-up funds and technical assistance.
Why are environmentally sustainable business practices essential to the future of the cannabis industry?
Regulating marijuana is far more environmentally sustainable than driving its production underground. Under prohibition, cannabis cultivation often occurs in state and national parks and has involved the diversion of streams, the use of unsafe pesticides, and other destructive practices. Incentivizing environmentally sustainable practices could help build support for ending prohibition in some quarters, and such practices are better for the planet we all inhabit.
How do you incorporate gender parity, social justice, and environmental sustainability into your work and the growth of your business / organization?
Concern for social justice is the core reason I work on marijuana policy. I have seen firsthand how destructive and unequal marijuana enforcement can be, and I believe ending marijuana prohibition is a moral imperative. By replacing marijuana prohibition with regulation, we increase social justice, create a newly legal industry that has far more gender parity than other industries, and improve the environment. We also include numerous provisions for social equity and community reinvestment in our model legalization bill, and champion such provisions in the many states where we lobby.
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