In Oakland, a new pot equity program is aimed at encouraging greater participation by African Americans in the city's booming cannabis trade. Jeff Chiu/AP

Oakland is leading the nation in defining what racial equity means by revising its medical cannabis business permit process to favor applicants who’ve been swept up in the war on drugs.

We often forget that an abundance of living-wage and wealth-creating jobs exist in low-income communities. Unfortunately, they happen to be in the drug-selling business.

For many decades, law enforcement has been directed to lock up anyone who tries to make a living in this field, especially if they are black. As criminal justice scholar Michelle Alexander wrote in a 2013 op-ed for The New York Times: “We’ve spent billions of dollars, arrested and caged millions of people, destroyed countless families and futures, and yet marijuana remains as popular and plentiful as ever. Why has this insanity continued for so long?”

Well, because racism. In Oakland, California, efforts are now underway to repair what the war on drugs destroyed through mass incarceration: In May 2016, the city amended its existing local medical marijuana regulation ordinance to provide more opportunities for people of color to open their own dispensaries. Most importantly, under the new equity permit program, people with prior convictions for weed-related crimes would have first dibs on getting a city license.

To flesh out the details for this program, the city commissioned a race and equity analysis report, to ensure that the new marijuana permitting process would benefit the right people. There is nothing more alarming in that report than the arrest data it relies upon for the program’s foundation: In 2015, African Americans made up 30 percent of the population but 77 percent of cannabis arrests, compared to 4 percent for whites.   

(City of Oakland)

And 2015 was no an aberration. Further analysis on arrest data from 1998 to 2015 turned up an even wider disparity—African-Americans comprised 90 percent of arrests; whites were 3.91 percent.

Some might speculate that the gap accurately reflects the faces of who sells and uses weed. But if white Oaklanders are so low on the weed consumption and possession scale (and, as a stroll around the area would reveal, they are definitely not), then why are they the ones opening dispensaries and outlets? As Amanda Chicago Lewis reported for Buzzfeed last year:

Nobody keeps official statistics on race and cannabis business ownership. But based on more than 150 interviews with dispensary owners, industry insiders, and salespeople who interact with a lot of pot shops, it appears that fewer than three dozen of the 3,200 to 3,600 storefront marijuana dispensaries in the United States are owned by black people—about 1%.

Oakland’s plan, which city council passed last month, seeks to correct this. The race and equity analysis report turned up a number of reasons why African Americans haven’t been able to access the medical cannabis industry. It also explains how the white-controlled legal marijuana trade is—dare we say—gentrifying the one market in which underemployed African Americans were able to make a living:  

In general, access to capital for starting a cannabis business is restricted because of federal regulations and further limited in low income communities due to the lack of personal wealth. Those with assets and a head start have the ability to surge forward with real estate acquisition and leasing that could lock new operations out of being able to set up shop in Oakland.Living wage” underground jobs in marginalized communities are in danger of being pushed out of those communities.

The new equity permit program gives normally disenfranchised African Americans a leg up in the medical marijuana market. Under this program, cannabis business permits would be prioritized for “equity applicants,” defined as someone whose annual income is less than 80 percent of Oakland’s average median income (AMI), and who lives in one of the 21 police beat areas where weed arrests have been most prevalent or who was convicted after November 5, 1996 for a weed-related crime.

The city’s permitting process will now roll out in two phases, the first of which would award at least half of all of permits to “equity applicants,” who will be provided with entrepreneurial mentors, technical assistance (for business plan prep and municipal regulations compliance), and help with other procurement needs. The program also calls for “equity incubators,” where general (non-equity) marijuana business hopefuls can spruce up their own permit applications by offering rent-free real estate for helping cultivate up-and-coming black business owners.

Other perks of the equity program include relaxed criminal background checks, zero-interest small business loans, and conditional approval for equity applicants even if they don’t have all of their financing or real estate secured upfront. The program’s costs will be covered by the $3.4 million in licensing fees that the city has already collected from existing cannabis businesses. This is basically a reparations plan for black people who’ve been swept up into draconian drug policies and mass incarceration.

Will this ordinance actually take effect? The weed-friendly California legislature is unlikely to try to preempt it, as other states have done when cities have attempted to take business matters into their own hands. The only wild card here is what U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions may do to ham this up, given his allergies to economically logical marijuana laws. In his thirst to keep the war on drugs going, he may be willing to crack down on more marijuana users no matter what their race is.

That’s the wrong kind of equity. “A better answer,” wrote Michelle Alexander in her New York Times op-ed, “is to give all youth the same punishment that college students and suburban white youth have received for their marijuana use, which is basically none at all.”

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