As marijuana legalization expands across the U.S., the war on drugs inches closer to its long-awaited end. Hanging in the balance: those arrested or incarcerated for the drug, casualties of a war that’s been overwhelmingly waged in communities of color.
It’s one that, despite marijuana being legal in more than half the nation, is far from over. According to a report from the Colorado Department of Public Safety and Health, there was a 58 percent increase in marijuana arrests among black adolescents from 2012-2014. Among white adolescents, during the same time frame, arrests dropped eight percent.
While the federal government works to stop lawmakers from impeding on the freedoms of citizens in states where pot is legal, Oakland, California is looking to fix the damage that’s already done.
This week the city—known for uprooting the status quo—introduced a groundbreaking measure that’s been deemed “drug war reparations.”
Known officially as the “Equity Permit Program” it’s an ordinance that allocates half of its dispensary permits to people who’ve served time for marijuana violations in the last ten years, or lived in one of several zones with the highest number of arrests for the drug.
Written by councilwoman Desley Brooks, the equity program—at its core—is shattering the notion that marijuana violators are criminals. Instead, it offers them a front row ticket to a billion dollar industry fueled by the drug that once put them behind bars.
Social justice activists, while enthused by the idea, say the ordinance has problems—some of which, like a lack of financial assistance, may hinder the applicant’s ability to succeed. But its issues aside, the ordinance is nothing short of revolutionary, a piece of legislation which suggests that those struck down by pot should be the first its legalization lifts up. Oakland’s unanimous vote of approval is, if nothing else, a sign that those who’ve suffered from prohibition may soon be getting a green payback.
Before the equity program was passed unanimously by this week, the council listened to 47 testimonials from residents and business owners in Oakland who wanted to share their thoughts on the project. “The war on drugs has criminalized black and brown communities,” one speaker named George Galvis said. “Now that (marijuana) is becoming legalized there’s a whole line of white men that are about to get rich.”
Others, like Jake Sassaman from the Cannabis Regulatory Commission called it a “travesty” that would “devastate” the city. “You really have imposed an impossible minefield for us to navigate, with zero chance of success, in the name of equity,” he said.
“Please forgive me, but don’t, because this is some bullshit,” another man said. “There’s no equity in this… We’ve been getting arrested for selling nickel bags of weed since the 60s, and we can’t get in the door when it’s legalized? That’s some bullshit.”
His comments, as well as Sassaman’s, reflect larger issues with the ordinance—many of which are valid. For one, it only includes a handful of the city’s 57 police beats, excluding neighborhoods that were heavily impacted by marijuana prohibition. It also fails to recognize that formerly incarcerated men or women applying will likely—given the difficulty of obtaining a job in the U.S. with a criminal record—need financial assistance.
A representative for Supernova Women, a “space for women of color in cannabis,” thanked the council for initiating the conversation but stressed the need for fee waivers, broadening of police beats, and protection of existing businesses. “We want Oakland to stand as a model for owners of color,” she said. “And we want you to know your audience is national, not just this city.”
In pushing the ordinance, Councilwoman Brooks stressed the need to open up the marijuana industry to everyone. “If you’re serious about equity, show us you’re willing to share this big pie,” said Brooks.
If current numbers are any indication, it’s a big pie indeed. According to ArcView Market Research, the legal cannabis market grew 17 percent in 2015 and is projected to grow 25 percent this year. If it does, the market will be worth upwards of $6.5 billion—which could surpass $20 million by 2020.
For those who’ve suffered at the hands of marijuana prohibition, it could be life-changing. As illustrated by the districts chosen in Oakland, all predominantly African-American, the vast majority are minorities. The American Civil Liberties Union explored the topic in a report titled The War on Marijuana in Black and White.
In it, the researchers found black men 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite using it in equal—or less—numbers than whites. Those arrested for even minor marijuana crimes face criminal records that staying with them forever—making difficult to obtain a job, apply for public housing, or qualify for financial aid.
For the legalization effort to forget these people, byproducts of a system that even the federal government admitted is misguided, would be senseless.
“[The war on marijuana] has needlessly ensnared hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system, had a staggeringly disproportionate impact on African-Americans, and comes at a tremendous human and financial cost,” says the ACLU. “The price paid by those arrested and convicted of marijuana possession can be significant and linger for years, if not a lifetime.”
Not if Oakland has anything to do with it.