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 overwhelmingly.
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 opportunity.
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.