How Some States Are Planning to Compensate the Communities Most Devastated by the War on Drugs

Across the country, there's a growing movement for economic empowerment through legalization.
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Marijuana is getting stronger

Shanel Lindsay is excited. The Boston-based marijuana legalization advocate and owner of Ardent LLC, a medical cannabis device company, is confident that her home state is laying the groundwork for the first statewide marijuana marketplace that will truly compensate communities that were most devastated by the War on Drugs.

"This is an industry that presents a high opportunity to build wealth, probably one of the few brand new industries that will come along in our working lifetimes," says Lindsay, who is part of a small but growing network of marijuana entrepreneurs of color. "The idea is to take cannabis prohibition and the damage that has been done and turn that into economic opportunity for people to own businesses that will, by their very nature, give back to these communities."

Massachusetts voters approved recreational weed back in November of 2016. But it wasn't until this April that the state began accepting applications for recreational marijuana business licenses. During that year and a half, advocates like Lindsay, a member of the state's cannabis advisory board, were fighting for regulations that would set aside a piece of the budding industry for affected communities. In Massachusetts, two groups of applicants will have their recreational marijuana licenses processed first: pre-established medical marijuana dispensaries, most of whom Lindsay says are overwhelmingly white; and so-called economic empowerment applicants—companies that are owned by, and employ large numbers of, people who have either been convicted of marijuana-related crimes or live in the communities with the highest number of marijuana arrests.

After just one day of accepting applications, over 100 potential entrepreneurs applied for economic empowerment priority licensing. While Lindsay says that was a huge victory, the policy win that she is most excited about is that the state has pledged to make licenses for home delivery services and social consumption establishments—think pot cafés—available just for equity applicants and small businesses for a period of time. Lindsay is advocating for five years. That will force many of the industry's biggest players to build relationships and support small minority-owned businesses. These provisions put Massachusetts at the forefront of the growing national movement to use marijuana legalization to repair some of the harm caused by the War on Drugs. Other states are quickly following suit.

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From its very onset, America's war on weed has been racialized. In the 1930s, Harry J. Anslinger, the nation's first drug czar and the father of marijuana prohibition, casted cannabis as a drug—mainly used by "Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers"—that had the undesirable effect of making "darkies think they're as good as white men." The primary reason to outlaw the drug, he argued, was "its effect on the degenerate races."

People of color have always been the primary targets for drug enforcement. But after decades of policies that were intended to ravage communities of color, many state and congressional lawmakers have been perfectly content with race-neutral marijuana legalization laws. While these bills are often sold as racial justice breakthroughs, most of the benefits of legal weed have flowed to white entrepreneurs, say both advocates and foes of legalization.

Jason Ortiz, a longtime proponent for legalization, concedes that many legalization efforts have failed to sufficiently addressed the historic harm caused by cannabis prohibition. He points to Ohio's failed voter initiative. The referendum would have legalized recreational weed use, but would have also handed the industry over to 10 groups of mostly white investors. Ohio voters soundly defeated the referendum and Ortiz thinks the potential monopoly was the culprit.

"Ohio failed the way it did because it was the first bill that the movement came out against," Ortiz says. "We had to really decide are we willing to accept any kind of legalization in order to get people out of prison or are we going to have some standards." In the wake of the Ohio vote, Ortiz got talking with Shaleen Title, who would later be appointed to a seat on the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, where she was the primary architect of that state's equity provisions.

Ortiz asked Title, a lawyer, what was the opposite of Ohio, to identify a state that had created a grassroots industry. The answer: none. So Title and Ortiz got to working on a piece of model legislation. Through the non-profit Minority Cannabis Business Association, the two worked with people of color from around the country to create a bill they hoped could make right decades of disproportionate drug enforcement. A big part of the model legislation is eliminating barriers to entry like high application fees and caps on licenses. In most states, investors have to compete for a limited number of licenses. "When a state says we're only going to issue 10 licenses, it becomes a matter of who can best lobby to get the most legislators on their side. These licenses end up going to the 10 wealthiest people," Ortiz says. "If you don't have a cap, it's simply based on whether you follow the rules and are able to start a business."

Many of the model bill's provisions are already a reality in Oakland, California. In Oakland, longtime residents of the police districts where the War on Drugs raged the hardest qualify for the city's equity program. Oakland's program has been hailed as a model for racial reconciliation, but Amber Senter—co-founder of Oakland-based Supernova Women, a group of women that use education, advocacy, and networking to empower people of color to enter the cannabis industry—isn't quite ready to declare victory just yet. Senter moved to California four years ago as a "cannabis refugee." She left Chicago after being diagnosed with Lupus and finding it difficult to navigate Illinois' medical marijuana marketplace. A friend of hers, a white guy, offered her a job helping him build a marijuana business.

Soon Senter found herself immersed in an industry that was almost entirely made up of white men. At one conference, she met Nina Parks, one of her fellow Supernova co-founders. The two commiserated over being the only people of color there. She later met the third co-founder, Sunshine Lencho, at another industry event almost exclusively attended by white folks. At the time, Senter was working at a consulting firm that was helping investors with their applications for marijuana licenses. She got Lencho a job at the firm. "One day, Sunshine and I were talking about how we were actively helping to gentrify our industry by giving away our knowledge in these applications for really rich white people," Senter recalls. "So we thought how can we give this information to our community and how can we do that for free. I invited Nina over to Sunshine's house and, over dinner, we formed Supernova."

While Senter is in favor of many of the provisions in Oakland's equity program, she says the city still has a long way to go. She is advocating for officials to provide equity businesses with more technical assistance to give them the know-how to keep their nascent businesses afloat. She would also like some kind of watchdog for the equity program. She says she has seen too many white-owned businesses come into Oakland and buy up these equity participants' businesses for mere fractions of what the businesses will soon be worth.

"This is about creating generational wealth in our communities. How can we do that, how can we make sure these businesses are sustained so that they can put money back into the community," Senter says. "A bunch of places are enacting equity programs; this is going to be the trend throughout the country. So I really hope that people keep a close eye on Oakland and watch the mistakes that were made here and try to fix them."

Minority Cannabis Business Association's model legislation isn't just about increasing the number of minorities in the burgeoning industry, it also calls for an Office of Justice Reinvestment to address the issue of how the new tax revenue generated from legal weed should get reinvested back into communities. That's something Lawrence Grandpre, director of research at Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a grassroots think tank, is working on in Baltimore. Grandpre has been watching developments around the country and just isn't convinced that the marijuana industry itself will provide a route to wealth in communities of color, so instead what he is fighting for is a seat at the table when lawmakers are deciding how to spend the weed windfall. Grandpre has been trying to lay the groundwork for a community reparation fund as Maryland slowly inches its way toward legalization. The idea is that community members in the zip codes most affected would get to have the first say in how new tax revenues would be used.

"For every one white person arrested, there were 5.6 black people arrested in Baltimore for marijuana possession. If you take that over the past few decades, you're talking about hundreds of thousands of people being jailed," says Grandpre, who notes that research has consistently shown that whites and blacks use the drug at similar rates. "You need to look at the cumulative effect of the trauma and forced mobility that this caused. You have to rebuild the institutions in these communities that were harmed."

"We won't support a bill without strong, targeted language about the tax revenue going back to the communities that were most impacted by prohibition," he adds.

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Of course, not every person of color sees a path to economic uplift through legalization. Ronald Rice, New Jersey's longest-serving black senator and the leader of its black caucus, has emerged as one of the primary opponents of legalization in that state. Bucking a wave of Democratic support for legalization, Rice, who represents parts of Newark and surrounding areas, argues that black residents will have to contend with all the negative externalities of legalization without reaping much of the benefits. He points to studies from states like Colorado, the first state to allow recreational use, that show the overwhelming majority of businesses are white-owned.

In Denver, many of these business owners have set up shop in mostly poor and minority neighborhoods where residents complain about the odors emitted from from industrial grow houses. Very little of the newly created wealth has been used to transform these communities, detractors say. Rice points out that, even with recreational use now legal In Colorado, African Americans are still almost three times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses.

"This whole legalization movement is about government being more concerned about taxing to fund programs and about Wall Street making money," Rice says. "If this were really about social justice, we'd be talking about decriminalizing and getting some of these people out of jail."

Indeed, national Democrats seem content with splitting legalization from reparations. To mark April 20th, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that he would introduce a bill legalizing marijuana. While the bill sets up special funding to help minority- and women-owned businesses enter the new legal market, it is largely silent on repairing the decades of harm caused by prohibition. Schumer says that could be addressed by a separate 2017 bill from New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Booker's bill would allow people convicted of possession to get their records expunged and would direct the Department of Housing and Urban Development to establish a grant program for re-investing in communities that were most devastated by the War on Drugs.

Longtime legalization proponent Rachelle Yeung concedes that there's some validity to arguments like Rice's.

"Every politician just sees marijuana as an opportunity to help fund their pet project. What I'm coming to realize is that it's all the criminal justice stuff that people don't want to touch that would actually help communities of color more," Yeung says. "If people are really concerned with the racial disparities in law enforcement and criminalization of marijuana among people of color, we really should be focused on decriminalizing not just possession, but sales and distribution, expunging records, and re-sentencing folks who are in jail. All of those things, which are harder political sells, would actually be a lot more effective in undoing the damage prohibition has had on communities of color."

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