Pubdate: Sat, 04 Nov 2017
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2017 Los Angeles Times


Make no mistake, the war on marijuana has not been colorblind. Despite
national surveys showing that white people and black people use
marijuana at approximately the same rates, blacks have over the years
been nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana
possession than whites.

That disparity is as true in Los Angeles as it is elsewhere in the
country. African Americans comprise less than 10% of the population in
L.A. Yet between 2000 and 2017, blacks represented 40% of
marijuana-related arrests. Latinos made up 44% of arrests. Whites made
up only 16% of arrests, according to a city consultant's analysis of
Los Angeles Police Department data.

And even as Los Angeles and other cities allowed the growth of a
quasi-legal, hugely profitable medical marijuana industry run mostly
by white entrepreneurs, police arrests for marijuana possession and
sales continued to target African Americans and Latinos

A drug arrest -- especially if followed by a conviction -- can have
terrible consequences. Even after a person has completed his or her
sentence, it remains harder to get a job, get into college, rent an
apartment or get a loan. A drug conviction is a barrier to economic

Even though the goals of the marijuana social equity program are
righteous, the details matter too.

Now that California has voted to legalize marijuana for adults, a
crucial question is whether there a way to repair the damage created
by decades of unequal enforcement practices.

The answer being considered by the Los Angeles City Council is to make
it easier for people who were arrested or otherwise affected by the
disparate enforcement of marijuana laws to get in on the ground floor
of the emerging multibillion-dollar cannabis industry.

The idea behind the proposed "social equity" program is that the
people most affected should now be helped to partake in the profits
and benefits of legalization. The challenges of opening a marijuana
business are so great -- there are huge upfront costs, serious
impediments to getting bank loans and extremely intricate regulations
- -- that many would-be entrepreneurs would be locked out without
government assistance.

Without question, Los Angeles ought to use a portion of future
marijuana tax revenue to help communities that have been
disproportionately targeted for marijuana enforcement. Tax money could
fund drug education and treatment, legal clinics to help people
expunge their marijuana conviction records, and reentry programs for
individuals leaving prison.

The city could also help encourage entrepreneurs from communities that
have had disproportionate numbers of marijuana arrests to enter the
business by offering training, compliance assistance and priority
licensing. Priority licensing is important because, due to zoning
restrictions, only a limited number of applicants will ultimately be
granted the right to host a marijuana business. The first batch of
licenses will be offered to medical marijuana shops that have operated
since 2013 in L.A. with limited immunity under Proposition D. Under
the city's proposed rules, the second batch of licenses would be
divided equally between general applicants and social equity
applicants -- giving the latter a better shot at snapping up those
opportunities. The third batch of licenses would be open to all applicants.

But here's where the social equity program raises concern: The current
proposal gives special advantages, waives fees and offers the most
assistance to low-income people who themselves have marijuana-related
convictions. It's one thing to target assistance broadly to
communities that have felt the impacts of unequal enforcement. It's
another thing to reward people who broke the law and got caught by
giving them priority over people who did not break the law.

That doesn't seem fair. Nor does it seem like a great idea to
incentivize people with convictions for selling or possessing
marijuana to return to the drug trade -- why not help them enter other
businesses instead?

To be sure, people with nonviolent drug convictions shouldn't be
barred from owning marijuana businesses or from working in them. But
they shouldn't be pushed to the front of the line either.

Admittedly, Los Angeles leaders are negotiating difficult terrain.
Just one other city -- Oakland -- has even attempted a comprehensive
social equity program, and that effort is still in its nascent stages.
The state will begin issuing marijuana licenses in January, and
businesses must have a local license in order to get a state one. So
L.A. leaders are rushing to adopt a regulatory program.

City Council President Herb Wesson understandably fears that if L.A.
doesn't build a social equity component into the process now, it will
be impossible to develop an inclusive, diverse industry later. The
result could be an industry dominated from the start by white-owned
companies backed by deep-pocketed investors. He's right. But even
though the goals of the social equity program are righteous, the
details matter too.
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