Cannabis Forum Debates San Francisco’s Equity Program

A Bayview panel examined where marijuana equity fails, and how it can succeed.

When adult-use becomes legal on Jan. 1, it won’t be the beginning of marijuana sales in California. People have been running cannabis operations peacefully for years — but they might be the ones left out of its legalization.

On Saturday, Oct. 21, the future of legalized cannabis was discussed in an often-overlooked place: Bayview-Hunters Point. District 2 Sup. Malia Cohen sponsored a forum at the Bayview Opera House, where residents spent the day learning more about the city’s forthcoming regulations and the direct impact such policies will have on the neighborhood.

In the morning, a panel that included San Francisco’s new Office of Cannabis Director Nicole Elliott and San Francisco Cannabis Legalization Task Force Chair Terrance Alan discussed a number of issues concerning the city’s proposed ordinances. However, the real highlight of the day was a riveting afternoon session centered on the subject of equity.

Speaking ahead of a group that included Hood Incubator Communications Director Juell Stewart and SuperNova Women co-founder Nina Parks, San Francisco City College professor Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin laid out some of the historical context that makes the participation of Bayview-Hunters Point a vital component of cannabis reform.

Dunn-Salahuddin spoke of growing up at Third Street and Revere Avenue, and how a ZIP code can still determine a child’s destiny. She pointed to the 1966 uprising of the Bayview in response to the shooting of Matthew “Peanut” Johnson as a reminder that the Bayview community is a powerful force when it unites as one, while also highlighting the systemic oppression the area has endured.

As San Francisco scrambles to meet deadlines ahead of the Jan. 1, 2018 start of adult-use sales, the city is still trying to determine what precisely equity means. In the scope of retail sales permits, the ordinances District 8 Sup. Jeff Sheehy has introduced call for the first wave of permits issued to new recreational retail locations to go exclusively to equity applicants.  

As it stands, equity is a loose term that is expected to include individuals disadvantaged by the War on Drugs, either through nonviolent drug offense convictions or by nature of their residency in areas historically known for being disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. But as Terrance Alan made clear when he spoke with Chem Tales last week, how equity will be defined is a matter of heated discussion.

For panelist and attorney Jude Pond, part of the issue stems from a lack of education on aspects of Prop 64 that allow for record expungement in relation to certain drug-related crimes. Getting loans and leases when you have a criminal record is extremely difficult, and Pond is eager to see more widespread efforts to educate those who may benefit from such services that they do, in fact, exist. (The San Francisco Public Defender’s office currently offers a drop-in clinic to assist individuals looking to apply for a clean record under Prop 64’s provisions.)

Nina Parks is a co-founder of SuperNova Women, an East Bay organization focused on providing a space for women of color in cannabis. She spoke candidly about how, once the work to write Prop. 64 was taken out of the hands of co-operatives and given over to corporations, the people who had the most experience in the cannabis industry — legal or otherwise — were left out of the discussion.

While the panel expressed dissatisfaction with the way things have progressed, they were also eager to share ideas on how San Francisco’s equity program can best operate. Given that meetings concerning local cannabis laws are often populated by older white men, it was beyond refreshing to see four women of color share much-needed insights.

Juell Stewart, who works for the nonprofit Hood Incubator, pointed to some major obstacles that any individual looking to get into the cannabis industry needs to overcome. The first is access to capital, which means getting the chance to sit down with VCs who are open to investing in cannabis enterprises. Another is real estate, a commodity in high demand and even shorter supply when the business in question involves cannabis. The third is business acumen, from learning Quickbooks to understanding the components of managing a track-and-trace program.

“The War on Drugs 2.0 is happening in the shadow of legalization,” she said, speaking to the vast disparity in opportunities between Bayview-Hunters Point residents and wealthy outsiders more readily able to cut checks and sign contracts.

What was clear from the afternoon’s discussion — which included time for public questions and commentary — is that simply making permits available to those previously targeted by the War on Drugs will not be sufficient. Equity requires more than giving prominent opportunities to those who have for many years peacefully and successfully run cannabis operations without the consent of the law. It’s also about giving them the business infrastructure to succeed.

Cohen’s forum on Saturday proved that when it comes to cannabis in San Francisco, there are a thousand ideas to hear and little time to listen to them all. It is now vitally important that citizens in Bayview-Hunters Point and beyond don’t stand by while decisions are made on their behalf.

As moderator Carroll Fife noted near the close of the forum, equity represents a form of transformative justice.

“It’s a justice that has to be taken,” Pond says. “It is not just given.”

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