African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated for marijuana charges. That’s true nationwide, and in Oakland, too.
More than three quarters of people there arrested for having pot in 2015 were African American. Meanwhile, almost all of the city’s medical marijuana dispensaries are white-owned, which means white people in Oakland are profiting off of pot, while African Americans are serving time for it.
Big dreams for pot
Now that California has legalized recreational marijuana, Oakland officials are trying to instill more equity into the business. One idea is to set aside marijuana business licenses for people impacted by the War on Drugs. But critics say this approach is impractical, and it has some pot entrepreneurs wanting to take their businesses elsewhere.
Chip Moore calls himself a “lifelong weed enthusiast.” He runs a cannabis collective based in Oakland called 4&20 Blackbirds.
“Cannabis culture is real. There was a time where it was locked in the shadows and people were quiet about it,” Moore says.
Californians voted to legalize recreational marijuana last November. Now, Moore wants to set up shop and bring his cannabis collective out into the open, green, Oakland grass. His dream is to set up a space for people to feel free to talk weed, eat edibles, exchange ideas, and feel creative and inspired.
“We want to have a positive effect, we want to be an anchor of that community,” Moore says.
But as an African American cannabis enthusiast, Moore knows that historically it hasn’t been easy for people who look like him to sell weed. And even though it’s mostly legal in California now, that doesn’t wipe away the past.
“We can't recognize what we are now, without all of those people who have come before us,” Moore says. “And that's on the street corners and that's in the jails. That's more of my world.”
Bending towards justice
The city of Oakland is trying to create a better world for people like Chip Moore. So they're organizing business meet ups. At a cannabis mixer held earlier this year, Oakland’s Race and Equity Director Darlene Flynn stood up in front of a crowd of people interested in getting into the interesting.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” said Flynn.
Flynn’s job is to help right past wrongs against African Americans and Latinos. She’s trying to stake out her place in the history of civil rights victories, like Brown vs. Board of Education and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
She says that in between those big milestones, there have also been little achievements, like the city’s equity program for cannabis.
Flynn sees legalized weed as the next civil rights frontier. When she was hired last fall, her first task was to study the impact of weed arrests on equality in Oakland.
“The racial inequities in Oakland are as stark as ever...and there's a way the city's policies have contributed to that, that we can tell,” Flynn says.
Flynn says that bringing people of color into the cannabis industry won’t end racism. But it’s an important to way to show people what happens when a city tries to create a more fair system.
Under the equity program, half of the permits the city issues to new marijuana business ventures must go to those who have been negatively impacted by the War on Drugs. That could mean they lived in an Oakland police beat with a high number of pot arrests, or they have a weed-related conviction. Only Oakland residents can apply for these equity permits. It’s a deliberative way of helping people of color beat the odds — kind of like affirmative action for weed.
“It’s the beginning, but we can build on it, because people can say, ‘That’s what it looks like,'” Flynn says. “This conversation that we're having signals to the community that we're at least trying to move into a new era, where things will be more fair and equitable.”
But attorney Robert Selna, who represents marijuana businesses, says all these rules will drive weed entrepreneurs away from Oakland. If half of the permits are set aside for a certain type of applicant, he says that doesn’t leave enough for everybody else.
“So, immediately, you have a application process where there's going to be a bottleneck,” Selna says.
Fewer applicants, he says, could mean less tax revenue for Oakland. That’s the same tax revenue earmarked for cannabis job training for low income communities.
“Why would you reduce the number of permits you're issuing and therefore the taxes that you're generating through that program?” Selna says. “It's sort of shooting yourself in the foot, or cutting off your nose to spite your face...or whatever you want to call it, it was a self defeating approach.”
A weed enthusiast caught in the bottleneck
It’s not just the big shot lawyers who are worried. At an art gallery in Oakland, weed enthusiast Chip Moore is in his element. He’s at a First Friday party, surrounded by like minded people who love weed and the whole culture that comes with it.
“Tonight, we’re celebrating our friends, our family, our network. how far we’ve come, and the struggle,” Moore says. “So this is a celebration.”
He’s celebrating now, but being able to open a brick-and-mortar business in Oakland is already looking less and less likely. Even though his current business is based in Oakland, Moore technically lives in Berkeley. That puts him just out of reach of Oakland’s equity permits.
“I've said it before; we are the poster child for the equity program,” Moore says. “So for Oakland to be like, ‘Ummm, let's slow you guys down’, and for the perimeters they've chosen, that's what hurts.”
Moore is no longer so sure he wants to set up shop in Oakland. Since he’s not an equity applicant, he might get caught in the bottle neck — he might have to wait longer to get his pot permit. But for him, there’s also a bigger issue. Oakland officials have described the equity program as a way of paying reparations for past wrongs.
“Reparations is a powerful word, and when you say, 'hey, we are going to better a community, and these are the ways we are going to do it,' the world will watch,” Moore says. “Make no mistake, there are emerging markets that are watching now, if this will work.”
He’s afraid of what might happen if it doesn’t work.
“The word reparation takes a hit, and as an African American I don't like that,” Moore says. “The idea of creating equity within the cannabis industry, it loses it's importance. It’s like, ‘Tried that, let’s move on.’ There's not going to be a second shot at this.”
The cost of cannabis inequality
But for the city’s Race and Equity Director, Darlene Flynn, that’s exactly why trying this equity program now is so important. And she’s not sure the city will necessarily lose money.
“First of all, we don’t know what the revenue is, so we're speculating, all this revenue we're going to be losing, or gaining,” she says. “It’s all highly speculative.”
And even if there is a ton of money to be made, Flynn says the city could still be on the losing side if they don’t reach for equality in cannabis.
“We think if we just rush ahead and collect the revenue, we'll be ahead of the game, but we never factor in the cost of leaving people behind,” Flynn says. “So we may have more revenue, and have more poverty, and have you gotten ahead when you do that?”
The permitting process just began last Spring, and the applications are rolling in. Some will get the green light to enter the pot market. Others may have to wait in line. But remember, the arc of the moral universe is long. Come January, the new era of legal weed will begin for adults in California.