Latinos hold the key to pot legalization, but will people of color share in its economic riches?
The town hall meeting, in a cavernous garage on an industrial side street in Gardena, was billed as an opportunity to learn about cannabis from some of the industry’s experts.
I assumed there would be strong arguments made in favor of Proposition 64, the November ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use.
But it hardly seemed necessary. From what I could tell, most of those in the room were already on board. Some had recently started businesses or were contemplating how to get a piece of what assuredly is going to be a huge economic pie if Proposition 64 passes.
One of the evening’s sponsors, the California Minority Alliance, was founded specifically to ensure that revenues from the legal marijuana industry make their way to the communities that have suffered most under the government’s failed anti-drug policies.
“White people are getting ready to make this happen,” said panelist Felicia Carbajal, a cannabis educator and activist. “If we don’t participate with them, we are not going to reap the benefits, and we are the people most affected by the war on drugs.”
Virgil Grant, who owned six Los Angeles-area cannabis dispensaries and spent six years in federal prison for conspiring to sell pot, was just as blunt: “African Americans spend a lot of money on cannabis. Get a stake in this business, not just as a consumer, but as an owner/operator. This is not about smoking weed. It’s much bigger than that. This is a billion-dollar industry.”
You could practically see the imaginations of the 75 or so people in that room ignite.
Of course, there won’t be much to dream about if Proposition 64 fails.
And while I have been cavalier about predicting its passage, I am acutely aware that success is not a sure thing. There is plenty of resistance to legalization among a key group of voters who could make or break it.
“Latinos in California are a large enough voting bloc that they can swing anything,” said UC Davis political sociologist Mindy Romero. “It comes down to turnout.”
In the 2012 general election, for example, Latinos represented nearly 27% of eligible California voters but were responsible for only 19% of the ballots cast.
Romero and other experts anticipate a healthier November turnout by Latinos, galvanized by antipathy toward GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and, to a lesser extent, the opportunity to cast a vote for Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who is vying with California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris for Barbara Boxer’s U.S. Senate seat.
But the Latino vote is not monolithic. And when it comes to marijuana, it presents something of a conundrum.
Younger Latinos — millennials — tend to favor legalization. But they also tend to vote in fewer numbers than their elders. And though the gap between those for and against legalizing has narrowed, an overall majority of Latinos still oppose it.
Which is why Gabriel Guzman, who runs the Monterey-area pot delivery service Namaste Wellness, describes the Latino electorate as a “waking giant.”
“There’s sort of a fear in educating Latinos about cannabis,” said Guzman, who last year founded an educational nonprofit that co-sponsored the town hall. “They don’t know what direction the waking giant will go.”
“The polling shows there is work to be done,” said Michael Bustamante, a “Yes on 64” spokesman, adding that “a very aggressive digital social media campaign” was planned to launch after Labor Day.
He wouldn’t say exactly how, but he vowed to “help educate some of the older Latinos on this.”
It may be an uphill battle.
“Older Latinos especially remember that the Spanish equivalent for ‘wino’ is a ‘marijuano’ — a loser, a bad person, a bum,” said political consultant Roger Salazar, who worked against legalization in 2010 when it appeared on the ballot as Proposition 19. This time around, he is neutral. “But if enough outreach is done, they are persuadable. Without outreach, they will not change. Skeptical voters are ‘No’ voters.”
So how do you go about persuading the skeptics?
First, it seems, they must be convinced that marijuana is legitimately useful.
“Every one of us grew up rubbing something on our arm or elbow that was some kind of herbal medicine,” Guzman said. “It’s part of our history. When we come at Latinos, we never say, ‘Smoke a joint or take a hit off a bong.’ We talk about topicals.”
Gina Koba, a 37-year-old Rowland Heights respiratory therapist, was deeply resistant to pot until her cousin was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia.
Nothing helped his pain.
At the time, she worked in a medical lab and decided — after much research — to make him a topical spray loaded with THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that also may have some anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. She said his pain was eased. Later, she said, her father smoked marijuana to help his terminal cancer pain.
I met Koba on Thursday at the town hall. She was sitting at a table with her line of topical cannabis products, Mere Relief, which she markets for arthritis, tension headaches and joint pain. In compliance with state law, her company is a nonprofit collective. Her website is bilingual.
For a while, she said, she kept her interest in cannabis a secret from her extended family. They are traditional, conservative Latinos who have associated marijuana with crime and addiction and “too many things that have caused hardship in our community.”
Yet even Koba, who has thrown herself into the brave new world of cannabis, is ambivalent about legalization. “I will be damned if my son gets high,” she told me. “But once he is a good, active citizen and earns his stripes in the world, then he should be able to enjoy it.”