Addressing Injustice in a New Industry

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We are wrapping up a month in which cannabis users, adult and medicinal alike, celebrate the merits of a hard won, multi-decade war for access to cannabis. As folks emerge from the 4/20 haze, I wonder how many are paying attention to the social tectonics shifting the industry. I hope many of them will pay closer attention to a significant and growing injustice in the turning battle – the shut out of people of color.

I have been traveling deep in cannabis business circles for some time now, and I’ve noticed that the vast majority of power players in the industry are white. The lack of racial/ethnic diversity in this burgeoning industry mirrors what we see in most other capitalist enterprises.

But for a movement built on peace love and understanding, and alongside if not often embedded with social justice it clearly missed racial justice. This is painful because, if you aren’t aware, the penalties for selling cannabis are vastly different depending on one’s skin color. According to the Marijuana Policy Project’s “Color Me Unjust” education campaign, Latinos are incarcerated at 3x the rate of white cannabis users, and when caught in possession of cannabis, black males are incarcerated 8x more than white males. Now that laws have changed in 24 states, cannabis businesses run by white folks are capitalizing on the activities that people of color had been formerly penalized for.

So it was with some surprise and delight (delight happens to policy wonks) that I have been watching the movement of a City of Oakland proposed ordinance that helps tip the scales in three major ways: 1) It would require that new cannabis businesses in Oakland include 25% staffing from high unemployment census tracts, 2) the city will give priority in licensing to proposals with ownership and operation by Oakland residents in high unemployment census tracts, and 3) the city will give tax credits and license fee reductions for cannabis businesses that hire and retain formerly incarcerated Oakland residents.

I read a lot of ordinances. And this is the first time I have seen anything like this attempt to speak aloud about the problem of upper class white businessmen owning cannabis businesses, locating in (for now) culturally diverse cities and replacing communities impacted by incarceration with communities seemingly immune to it. As state and federal governments consider rescheduling cannabis, reducing sentences, and commuting sentences, working on the other end to commit to turning around the inequality is an imperative. Oakland is helping provide a tangible and accessible direction toward deeper equality and the Oakland Cannabis industry is behind it.

We could argue all day about whether Oakland is going far enough, but the thing is, looking at the face of the overall industry, I am going to say today that it’s a really good start and I hope this ordinance leads the way for other cities to follow.

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