Legalizing Pot Is A Good Buzz, But Bigger High Is Social Justice

By Joe Garofoli
San Francisco Chronicle

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Californians go to the polls to vote on legalizing marijuana, there is something to keep in mind about what has happened so far in Colorado. As Joe Garofoli points out, “A central argument for marijuana legalization has been that people of color are disproportionately subject to pot-related arrests, even though they don’t use the drug more than whites. Legalization was supposed to even out the arrest rates, but that hasn’t happened in Colorado.”


Many Californians will vote to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use Nov. 8 because — hell, yeah! But many of the rest of us are hoping for a longer, deeper high from legalization. We’re hoping it brings some social justice.

That benefit of legalization, I fear, is being a bit oversold in California. Ask Candi CdeBaca. Legalizing pot hasn’t started to solve decades of inequities in her neighborhood because not enough people there have made social justice a priority.

CdeBaca was born and raised in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood of Denver, a poorer, predominantly Latino neighborhood. It used to be an industrial hub — the Purina pet food factory is still open nearby — and there used to be a cabinet-making plant across the street from where CdeBaca grew up. But like in many big cities, a lot of those industries moved away, leaving behind empty warehouses. Then Colorado legalized marijuana for adult recreational use in 2012.

“A lot of the progressive people here, we thought legalization would impact us favorably,” CdeBaca told me. But CdeBaca, who is the executive director of Project VOYCE, Voices of Youth Changing Education, thought it would bring jobs to a community that desperately needed them.

On paper, the industry delivered. A Denver Post survey this year found that Swansea — because of its low rents, vacant warehouses and zoning laws friendly to weed businesses — had one of the highest concentration of cannabis businesses in the city.

But CdeBaca said a lot of people who started those cannabis businesses weren’t from the neighborhood. Because marijuana is a business emerging from the shadows of illegality, “you want to hire people you know,” she said. And so the white people who had the money to start the businesses hired mostly other white people, she said.

“It’s not been for the people in the community,” she said.

A central argument for marijuana legalization has been that people of color are disproportionately subject to pot-related arrests, even though they don’t use the drug more than whites. Legalization was supposed to even out the arrest rates, but that hasn’t happened in Colorado.

The good news is that in the first two years of legalization, marijuana arrests fell 46 percent as many people complied with the new regulations, according to the Colorado Department of Public Safety. However, while the number of arrests decreased 51 percent for whites, they dropped only 33 percent for Latinos and 25 percent for African Americans. The pot-related arrest rate for African Americans remained nearly triple that of whites.

When I asked Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has methodically spent the past two years shepherding marijuana legalization to the ballot while talking up the social justice benefits, whether this would happen in California, he said the early stats from Colorado represented “a legitimate concern.”

Those problems “won’t go away overnight,” Newsom said.

Lynne Lyman of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that’s been fighting for years for legalization and social justice around the country — including in California — said a yes vote on Nov. 8 is just the first step.

“Nothing we do eliminates racism,” Lyman said. “We can’t get at underlying racism, but we can offer the tools to neutralize some of it.”

Learning from what’s happened in Colorado, the people who wrote California’s Proposition 64 included some provisions aimed at making the industry more open to all. The ballot measure gives local governments the power to make laws that can right some of America’s drug war’s wrongs.

And that brings us to Oakland, which is in the midst of trying to do just that by making laws that are trying to make sure that everybody has a chance to make it in the new industry. But it’s not easy. Terryn Buxton, a cannabis business consultant who represents one of Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods on the city’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission, understands what’s happening in CdeBaca’s Denver neighborhood, because he fears that’s what would happen in his.

“Given that most growers are coming out of the black market, it’s not surprising that you only going to hire people who you trust,” Buxton told me. “That’s why it is so important that there are local hire provisions.”

The early ways Oakland has tried to make the weed business equitable — trying to make sure that African Americans and Latinos have equal footing in the industry –have been riddled with problems that my colleague Rachel Swan has written about. It’s not surprising. Making this industry equitable requires us to untie centuries of problems related to race and class and power.

But at least Oakland is starting to have a really tough conversation about equity. Other cities should pay attention, because they are going to have to wrestle with the same one.

There’s an urgency here because California may be the country’s last chance to get this right. Lyman said longtime funders of cannabis legalization efforts, many of them motivated by social justice concerns, are growing weary of footing the bill for ballot measures around the country. They want people in the weed industry to take over funding of those efforts. But there’s no telling whether enough new cannabis entrepreneurs are as interested in social justice as they are in cashing in on the green gold rush. So how we solve this in California will set the template for the rest of the country.

So — hell, yeah! — if Prop. 64 passes, it will give lot of people a big buzz. But before that wears off, all of us — white progressives, weed entrepreneurs, black and brown activists, social justice believers and weed lovers of all shades — are going to have to figure out how to make sure everybody equally shares in the green. Or else this industry is no more enlightened than any other.

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