Pubdate: Thu, 31 Mar 2016
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Column: Chem Tales
Copyright: 2016 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts


Tikisha Ong wants to change the world. The East Bay 30-something 
wants to become something rarer than a Silicon Valley unicorn: a 
black person in a position of ownership in the medical cannabis industry.

No honest conversation about drugs can neglect race. If decades of 
blatantly biased arrest and incarceration statistics, the odd 
coincidence of the crack epidemic and then poverty ravaging 
once-middle-class black neighborhoods, and clear and cogent arguments 
like Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow did not convince you of 
the direct connection between drug prohibition and white supremacy, 
the recent revelation in Harper's that the drug war was cooked up by 
Nixon administration operatives specifically to "disrupt" blacks and 
the left made this undeniable. And thus far, the "Green Rush" of 
economic opportunity presented by the legitimization of marijuana has 
been lily-white.

Fewer than one percent of the roughly 3,500 cannabis retail outlets 
in America are owned by black people, Buzzfeed recently reported. 
Last winter, a marijuana investor summit in San Francisco was deemed 
"the most white and male convention you could go to" - by one of its 
organizers. Of the owners of the city's 28 medical marijuana 
dispensaries, only a handful - one Jordanian-American, one 
Palestinian-American, one Asian and a Latino - are non-white, 
according to an SF Weekly count. (The city - which saw 8,000 Latinos 
leave the Mission in the past decade and the black population dip 
below 5 percent, leaving one of the smallest black populations of any 
major American city - keeps no demographic data on its marijuana 
industry.) In cannabis circles, the place you are most apt to see a 
black person - aside from purchasing product at the counter - is 
working security at the door.

"Predominately, it's an older, white male industry," says Ong, a 
polished former corporate spokesperson who claims to have been 
involved in the cannabis industry in various ways "most of her life," 
dating from when her military veteran father self-medicated with 
cannabis to treat PTSD and, later, cancer. (In case her name throws 
you, one of her parents is black, the other Chinese).

"This is a disparity that needs to be changed," she adds. 
"African-Americans need a place in this industry."

To secure such a place - and be, quite possibly, only the second 
black dispensary owner in the Bay Area; SF Weekly can name only one 
more, in Oakland - Ong last year filed an application to operate a 
medical cannabis dispensary in a long-vacant commercial storefront on 
Sickles Avenue in the Outer Mission, a few blocks away from the Daly 
City border.

She's also enlisting some help: On March 11, Rev. Amos Brown, head of 
the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, wrote an open letter to the 
Planning Commission officials who will approve or reject Ong's plan.

In his letter, Brown called marijuana "yet another lucrative industry 
growing without [sic] almost no input from our community - another 
table we are not invited to sit at."

The problem is that this is not just a race issue. It's also a 
neighborhood zoning issue - and not even the venerable NAACP stands a 
chance against the power of neighborhood opposition, of which there 
is plenty in the Outer Mission.

Laws passed more than a decade ago restrict legal medical cannabis 
businesses to a select few areas in a select few neighborhoods. 
Repeated pleas to open up this "Green Zone" - including from the 
Planning Commission - have gone unheeded at the Board of Supervisors, 
where marijuana is still more a liability for a politician than anything else.

Stretches of the Excelsior and the Outer Mission, where there are 
many vacant storefronts, are in the Green Zone. There are also three 
dispensaries along a mile-long stretch of Mission Street between 
Silver Avenue and the Daly City border, with a few more on Ocean 
Avenue. But the most vocal locals say they have enough legal weed.

"This is not a race thing," says Joelle Kenealey, president of the 
Outer Mission Merchants and Residents Association, which is opposing 
the dispensary (and successfully defeated the last dispensary to try 
to open in the neighborhood in 2014). "She could bring any other 
business - a bakery, a pet food store, something we need out here. We 
are pretty much good on [dispensaries] ... we already have three."

Ong's hearing at the Planning Commission has been delayed until July. 
A recent neighborhood meeting called to discuss her dispensary plan 
drew a standing-room-only crowd, nearly all of whom were opposed to 
the idea, according to Kenealey. It also drew a political hopeful 
seeking to represent the area on the Board of Supervisors, who will 
likely use cannabis as a campaign issue.

It's notoriously difficult to open up a new medical marijuana 
dispensary in San Francisco - so difficult that out-of-town business 
people with deep pockets are buying buildings with existing 
dispensaries in them in order to avoid the planning process. (Think 
about that: buying S.F. real estate is preferable to attempting to 
navigate the approval process.) Anyone still interested is advised to 
set aside close to a million dollars - cash needed to pay lawyers, 
architects, permit fees, and up to a year's worth of rent on your 
would-be storefront while you wait to see if angry neighbors torpedo 
your business plan.

It's not clear how cannabis's race problem can be corrected. At the 
state level, advocates like the NAACP have demanded that licenses for 
commercial cannabis activity should not be denied to applicants with 
nonviolent, low-level drug offenses. In the Medical Marijuana 
Regulation and Safety Act signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last fall, they 
achieved that. Fixing the rest of America's race-related drug 
problems will require a plan that thus far nobody has crafted.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom