In March of this year, Oakland City Council implemented the Equity Permit Program for aspiring marijuana entrepreneurs in the new green economy. This program is designed to address the past disparities in the cannabis industry by giving priority to the victims of the war on drugs and minimizing barriers to entry into the industry; ultimately trying to level the playing field within the medical cannabis arena. The Oakland City Council found that the Black community has been dramatically overrepresented in cannabis-related arrests in the past 20 years, accounting for 90% of these arrests at times.
The city is including an incentive for non-equity applicants by fast-tracking permits from property owners who offer free rent to equity applicants as a way to assist the entrepreneurs who have had little access to capital. Additionally, tax revenue collected from this new licensing process will be used to establish an assistance program for equity applicants, offering no-interest startup loans, exemption from the permit application fee, and technical assistance.
To qualify as an applicant and receive this assistance, the individual must be an Oakland resident with an annual income that’s less than 80 percent of the Oakland Average Medium Income and either has a past marijuana conviction in Oakland or has lived for ten of the last twenty years in police beats that experienced a disproportionately higher amount of law enforcement.
Although the program may not perfect, Oakland is setting an example of how to begin to address marijuana-related oppression that has impacted historically marginalized groups. Other states that have legalized marijuana, or are in the process of doing so, should look to the Oakland model because legalization alone will not address the historic injustices perpetrated by law enforcement under prohibition.
However, as states both decriminalize and legalize the recreational use of marijuana, researchers still find enormous racial disparities within arrest rates. From a 2013 ACLU report, researchers found that although marijuana use rates are almost equal among Black and White individuals, Black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession compared to their White neighbors. Even with decriminalization, most states still have outrageous fines in lieu of jail time—$5 worth of marijuana can result in a $150 fine in Ohio. For most people, that is a large portion of their paycheck that would otherwise go towards rent, food, and other basic necessities. And, most importantly, the same racial disparities within arrest rates of marijuana possession are likely replicated in civil offenses for marijuana possession. Even with decriminalization, police are still going to be targeting Black people at the same rate. In Washington, DC last year, arrests for public use of marijuana nearly tripled just one year after marijuana use (but not marijuana sales) became legal in the city. Many of these arrests directly impact poor people and minorities, especially because it’s only legal to consume marijuana on privately owned property. Individuals who rent or are in public housing cannot enjoy private consumption.
So, even when more states begin to legalize marijuana, Black individuals are still going to be less likely to be able to thrive in the regulated marijuana market because of the copious amount of fines, prison time, and harassment from law enforcement. Not to mention, even when fines are replaced for minor marijuana possession instead of jail time, those that are unable to pay the fine may be arrested or forced to appear in court–raking in additional fines to pay. However, not even programs similar to Oakland’s are enough to resolve these discrepancies. A number of states have laws that don’t allow those with past convictions to apply to open a marijuana business, which disproportionately discriminates against minorities that have been targeted for marijuana possession offenses prior to legalization. To rid of this disparity, states with legalization laws should be issuing automatic expungements of prior marijuana-related arrests.
The enforcement of marijuana prohibition has gone out of its way to marginalize the Black community, so it’s only right that each state work just as hard to remedy this problem. A great place to start is with a program that allocates a certain amount of funds, resources, and applications for minorities who want to start a marijuana business, in states that have legalization laws. Without these programs and without recognizing these injustices, racial disparities will continue and Black people will not be given a fair opportunity to thrive in a regulated marijuana market.