Op-Ed

Why I want legal marijuana in my South L.A. district

A majority of Californians voted in support of legalizing medical and adult-use cannabis. Clearly, the people believe that cannabis is not a dangerous drug when sold and consumed responsibly — and that the cannabis economy, once legalized and regulated, can serve in the best interest of Californians.

Many have asked why we should continue funding the losing war on cannabis when we can reap the benefits of this economy. Many have compared the emergence of legalized cannabis to the history of the alcohol industry.

Cannabis prohibition was supposed to lower crime and reduce social problems. Instead, prohibition has overloaded our courts and prisons, while social problems persist. The people wisely made medical and recreational cannabis consumption legal in California; now it’s up to the Legislature and law enforcement to work out the details.

I’m eager to have my State Assembly District 59, encompassing most of South Los Angeles, participate in this new economy. District 59 has been historically underserved and has felt the devastating and debilitating effects of the war on drugs, but I strongly believe that we can reverse the stigma associated with cannabis and allow this burgeoning industry to uplift our community.

There’s a reason legal cannabis has been nicknamed the “green rush.” The legal medical cannabis market was already worth an estimated $7.2 billion in 2016, and recreational cannabis could create more than 250,000 jobs in the state by 2020.

In District 59, where our unemployment rate is much higher than the state average, we simply cannot afford to miss out on this opportunity. Historically underserved communities— especially those communities that were on the receiving end of the war on cannabis — deserve to reap the benefits of this new industry.

As we formulate and implement medical and adult-use regulations, we must allow those who previously operated in the underground market to move into the legal market. Once on the wrong side of a bad law, they will now be able to contribute to the collective well-being of our community and local economy. Once criminals, they’ll now be business owners.

We must actively encourage the transition from criminality to legitimacy. We cannot allow those who are operating illegally in the underground market to continue to put health and public safety at risk. Instead, we should urge them to operate in compliance with local and state law by providing them a pathway for success, perhaps through small-business loans and equity programs implemented at the local level.

We also need to make sure that our community members have an opportunity to obtain employment in these newly regulated businesses. This can be achieved by requiring that operators hire within our own communities, ensuring that people convicted of nonviolent crimes are not barred from employment, and providing low-cost training that local community members can access. It is only through this inclusive approach that we can equitably spread the benefits of legal cannabis.

Our new federal administration seems intent on reviving our nation’s war on drugs — which history has shown to be more of a war on people of color. But we in California, and especially in South Los Angeles, have an opportunity to prove that legalization and regulation can guarantee public safety and spur economic growth far better than mass incarceration.

Assembly member Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer Sr. represents Assembly District 59. He can be reached at (213) 744-2111.

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