When recreational cannabis becomes legal in California on Jan. 2, part of the focus — in Los Angeles, at any rate — will be on "social equity." That's the term for a set of guidelines meant to spread legalization's wealth to neighborhoods that have gotten the worst of the drug wars. According to draft legislation currently moving through the City Council, for every general license approved for a pot shop, one license must also be approved for social equity reasons.
I'm fully in favor of legalization — here, there and everywhere. I wouldn't stop with marijuana, either. Across the board decriminalization would allow us to reframe addiction as a medical issue, and treat it as such. No more mandatory sentences, no more addicts in prison simply because of drug use. It would also undermine the black market, and raise tax revenues that could be channeled, in part — as Los Angeles plans to do with 20% of its marijuana taxes — into recovery and rehabilitation.
The city's proposed social equity program offers a related set of responses on a larger scale, something akin to reparations for whole communities. It would provide assistance to cannabis-license applicants who have been convicted of a marijuana crime or whose relatives have been convicted, as well as to low-income applicants in neighborhoods affected by large numbers of pot arrests and companies that agree to help disadvantaged applicants.
The idea originated in Oakland, where the City Council voted unanimously in March to institute a similar licensing framework. Oakland has embraced cannabis capitalism in the two decades since medical marijuana became legal in California. But recreational weed means a whole new level of marijuana investment in the state, with a particular focus on Los Angeles. As Ryan Jennemann, co-founder of THC Design, told the Daily News in August, he moved his cultivation company south from the Bay Area to get "a foot in the [door of the] largest market in the world."
Social equity adds a measure of humanity to that economic enterprise, encouraging it to operate according to more than than merely commercial concerns. If this sounds utopian, I am not naive about what's at stake. Dispensaries in Washington state earned more than a billion dollars in sales in the first two years after recreational marijuana was legalized there in 2014; about a quarter of that went to excise taxes. Southern California alone, with close to 20 million residents, is expected to bring in significantly more in sales and tax revenue.
In such an economic landscape, how can we not make room for individuals and communities inordinately targeted in the past? Their experience only confirms what we already know: Prohibition has never worked, from the Volstead Act (1919) to the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act (1934), from the Marihuana Tax Act (1937) to the war on drugs.
Since then-President Nixon labeled drug abuse "public enemy number one" in 1971, we've pursued an unworkable and discriminatory policy. In a piece last year for Harper's, Dan Baum reported that former Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman admitted as much to him in 1994.
"You want to know what this was really all about?" Ehrlichman said, in reference to the drug war. "We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the [Vietnam] War or [to be] black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities."
Even now, the disparity remains distressing. As recently as six years ago, according to a 2016 report by the ACLU of California, African Americans in Los Angeles were "cited for marijuana possession infractions … 3.6 times more often than white people."
Writing social equity goals into the regulations that will govern marijuana in Los Angeles won't solve these problems. But it suggests progress, a way forward, and a mechanism for giving the economic argument for legal marijuana a moral grounding. It speaks to a larger vision, in which entrepreneurship and business come with a conscience, enforced by the rule of law.
Contrary to the prohibitionist rhetoric of the Department of Justice under Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, good people do smoke marijuana. We all know them, or we are them. They are our friends, our spouses, our children. We live in a state where cannabis is already prevalent: According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, California produced "at least 13.5 million pounds of marijuana last year." Even if you find such a statistic disturbing, this is where we are: Marijuana is, as it has long been, entrenched in the culture of California. As it emerges from the gray market into a wholly legitimate industry, there is no question that we should consider the communities and individuals most adversely affected by the wrongs the City Council is seeking to right.
David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion.