The Trouble with Cannabis Reparations

For decades, being a marijuana advocate required that you be a combination of outlaw, policy wonk, and social-justice warrior. You were pushing illegal conduct, because ending an expensive and racially biased experiment was the right and sensible thing to do — a position backed by data. This came at a cost: The real problems of holding down a job — to this day, casual pot smokers remain closeted for fear of their employers' legal, courts-upheld right to terminate them — while also avoiding undue attention from authorities in government and law enforcement meant most out-there cannabis advocates looked a certain way: mostly white, mostly male. (Quick: Name a female legalization advocate. Now name a black one.)

These days, “cannabis advocates” are customers of a multibillion-dollar cannabis industry, which is attracting attention and investment from financiers in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street. Saying you like weed or want legalization barely gets a rise out of cops or lawmakers; these days, you have to have a business plan for anyone to take notice. Social justice has taken a clear back seat. And for those keeping score, the owners of most cannabis businesses look just like the advocates: white and male (although, generally speaking, much better-dressed).

Only a few weeks ago, the cannabis capital of northern California was going to be Oakland. Easily the weed-friendliest city in the state — with adult sales going on with knowledge of police since 2004, when voters passed Measure Z, a law making even cannabis sales lowest-priority for police — Oakland has it all: ample warehouse space for commercial-sized grows, extraction and testing labs, and a relatively central location with easy freeway access. Smart entrepreneurs smelling opportunity were ready to descend, and Oakland weed companies were waiting for November and almost-certain legalization to expand.

Then social justice returned with a vengeance.

Last week, the City Council approved a licensing system for existing weed businesses, while also doubling the number of dispensaries allowed within city limits from eight to 16. But this also included a first-of-its-kind “equity program.”

For every new permit issued to a weed-related business in the city, an “equity permit” must now also be issued. Equity permits are reserved for companies who meet one of several criteria: Their majority owner must live in one of several police beats in East Oakland identified as having “suffered the worst” during the war on drugs, or they must have gone to jail for a cannabis crime in Oakland during the past decade. This is intended to ensure that minorities have a stake in the weed game, beyond working the counter or doing deliveries (as many, admittedly, already are).

This is the first instance of the tall talk of righting wrongs of the drug war — the messaging you will hear repeatedly during the campaign for the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), the legalization measure largely funded by tech billionaire Sean Parker — being codified in a law.

“Apparently, some people are of the mindset that equity is only allowing people to work for you,” says Councilmember Desley Brooks, who came up with the equity program. “If there were truly an interest in equity in the cannabis industry, it would have been done before this … We have an opportunity to start this off right, and it goes beyond the people who came to Oakland and set themselves up in the last year or two to take advantage of a booming industry to the exclusion of our residents.”

Existing dispensaries are grandfathered in, but there are plenty of other existing businesses — grows, nurseries, bakeries, you name it — that don't yet have local licenses. (Remember, in order to receive a state license under the new Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, you need a local license.) And they won't get one, unless someone else also gets an equity permit at the same time, a sort of “two-by-two” Noah's Ark situation.

How is the industry taking it? At least some cannabis businesses are flipping out, calling the equity program a well-intentioned job-and-industry killer, and warning that the tax revenue and entrepreneurship that was heading to Oakland is now looking elsewhere, namely Sacramento and other cities in the Central Valley.

“All of us have been affected by the war on drugs, and we recognize we haven't been affected by it equally,” says Dan Grace, founder of Oakland's Dark Heart Nursery, one of the state's most in-demand providers of baby cannabis plants.

Grace compared the equity program to a car crash: “If someone crashes a car into a group of people, and someone has a broken leg and someone is paralyzed, the person who's paralyzed doesn't go after the person with the broken leg for reparations — they go after the car!”

In this able analogy is the heavy point: reparations. Academics and activists have argued in the past for reparations to help make up for America's legacy with slavery. Daisy Ozim, a 24-year old black woman who sits on a San Francisco task force charged with recommending regulations for an adult-use market, wants to push for a similar “reparations” program.

Though it's unclear if there will be the political will for anything similar here, as there has yet to be political will to put together any rules to comply with the state Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA). Bizarrely and inexplicably, Ozim's task force deals only with the possibility of AUMA, not the reality of the MMRSA, which means that San Francisco is officially more concerned with potentialities than realities.

Meanwhile in Oakland, the equity debate isn't done. Grace and other industry types are hoping for amendments. Brooks says there will indeed be amendments — and they'll be even stronger.

(A possibility would be to mandate local hires as well as local ownership; Brooks would not comment on specifics.)

“This is like when alcohol came out of Prohibition,” Brooks says. “To just set up the people who have always benefitted from this, while the people who have been oppressed don't reap economic rewards seems awfully unfair. In fact, it's called systemic racism.”

It's not clear what a more-acceptable social-justice component for weed would look like, but one thing is clear: Weed in 2016 is not taking kindly when held by law to its activist roots.

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