Chem Tales: California's Cannabis Industry Could Deny Jobs to Ex-Cons

Last week, on the same day Jeb Bush was in San Francisco taking Uber to a startup, President Barack Obama made a headline that, in a different context, would warm even the nuttiest Tea Partiers' hearts.

Obama went to prison.

While there, the first sitting president to go inside the national institution that houses 2.3 million Americans at a cost of $80 billion a year made an observation. His own teenage party habits — smoking marijuana, sniffing cocaine — could easily have landed the first black president in prison instead of the White House.

The inmates he met, Obama told the press, “are young people who made mistakes that aren't that different from the mistakes I made, and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made.”

The difference is the punishment. If current trends continue, one-third of black men in America will be incarcerated at some point in their lives. The drug war is a big reason why: Almost 60 percent of nonviolent drug offenders in state prisons are black, according to the NAACP.

Before his trip behind bars, Obama commuted the sentences of 22 nonviolent drug offenders. They will go home July 28. But releasing prisoners is only part of the battle. They still don't have much to go home to.

Once an inmate's “debt to society” is paid, the reward is a lifetime of economic opportunity limited to low-paying jobs and a place on the “cycle of poverty and prison,” as POLITICO put it.

Now, in a cruel twist, California's cannabis industry could contribute to that cycle.

Lawmakers in Sacramento are pushing a bill through the Legislature that would regulate commercial medical cannabis activity for the first time. This bill, called AB 266, would require that businesses producing, growing, selling, or transporting medical cannabis acquire business licenses.

It would also allow the state to deny licenses to certain ex-offenders, including people formerly involved in — wait for it — the illegal drug trade.

Most state-regulated professions in California have generic rules that allow a licensing authority to deny a permit to someone who committed a misdemeanor involving “moral turpitude.” This is the language that's seen would-be barbers denied permits to cut hair because of a crack conviction, according to the ACLU. There is a carve-out that allows ex-cons involved with cannabis to stand a shot at getting licenses, but if the potential licensee had ever been busted, with, say, LSD or psilocybin at a Dead show or crack cocaine on a street corner, they could be shut out from working in the cannabis industry.

It's hard to draw a parallel that captures the absurdity of the situation. Imagine if producing wine was illegal (as it was less than a century ago). Law enforcement would catch some, but not all, of the underground vintners. Only the ones lucky or cunning enough to escape attention could later set up vineyards or work in tasting rooms. Everyone else would be out of a job, their skill set worthless.

In this way, the new “legitimate” industry may reward the skills — running undetected, or taking advantage of or creating police corruption — most akin to criminal activity.

“It is critically important that we have employment opportunities for the people most harmed by the war on drugs,” says Natasha Minsker, the director of the ACLU's California Center for Advocacy and Policy. “That means that people with criminal convictions need to have access to these jobs.”

Assuming best intentions, the provision barring criminals from cannabis licenses is there to soothe fears that a regulated marijuana market would be overtaken by cartel gangsters. In reality, it's there to satisfy the state's powerful and conservative law enforcement lobby, which has strong “opposition to people with criminal convictions working in the marijuana industry,” Minsker says.

Creating a new, aboveboard industry out of a black market drug economy has never been done before. With Prohibition, there was a liquor industry in place before there was Al Capone.

AB 266's authors appear to be stuck in a delicate balancing act. Ahead of AB 266's next hearing in mid-August, Bonta is attempting to “refine the restrictions” on who can acquire permits in order to “reduce barriers to employment while balancing safety concerns,” his office said in a statement.

Let's hope it can be done. Shutting out ex-cons from cannabis ventures would backfire badly. It would encourage more black market or unlicensed activity, creating a headache for police. It would also deny a hard-earned knowledge base to an emerging industry, and take away what jobs are still left to people in urban cores who are shut out from careers in startups or Fortune 500 firms.

If Jeb's Uber is like other Ubers cutting across the city, it probably headed down Market Street for at least a few blocks, past the group of young men hanging outside the World of Stereo store near the Tenderloin. These guys, nearly all black, hustle marijuana to passersby. If cannabis becomes legal, they deserve a shot at least at selling it in a store. If they're shut out before the game begins, don't be surprised if the flawed status quo has new support.

“We support the legalization and taxation of marijuana in part so that our communities can be restored,” Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, told SF Weekly. “The rules should not punish [ex-offenders] further. They cannot be barred from jobs in this new industry.”

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