One State Is Clumsily Trying To Include Minorities In The Pot Legalization Boom

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SETH PERLMAN, FILE
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SETH PERLMAN, FILE

Marijuana legalization has moved from the political fringe to the national mainstream at breakneck speed, minting a whole new class of legal weed millionaires as states to break away from federal prohibition of cannabis. But as the repression and violence of drug war black markets give way to a legitimate economic boom, some states are still trying to work out who exactly may reap the financial opportunities.

Over half of all U.S. states now allow medical marijuana in some form and four have legalized the drug for adult recreational use, creating a market with tens of millions of new customers. But legalization measures bar most drug offenders from owning a pot business or even working for one. And since marijuana laws were much more strictly enforced in minority communities despite comparable drug use rates across racial lines, the same communities most ravaged by the drug war are being shut out of the early years of the green rush.

Racial inequities in legalization are starting to get more attention, but they are so entrenched that they are difficult to unpack even when lawmakers bother to try. In Ohio, for example, lawmakers signed into law a medical marijuana system requiring the state to give at least 15 percent of all business licenses for the new industry to members of racial minorities.

But now, the public is discovering, that provision may be unconstitutional.

The licensing quota is a well-intentioned move to combat drug war inequities and broader economic inequality, but the hard-and-fast equity rule would almost certainly be struck down in court should anyone file a legal challenge.

Lawmakers realized the 15 percent licensing quota would not pass legal muster while debating Ohio’s initiative this spring, the Associated Press reported Sunday, but were afraid of shattering the fragile support for the measure if they tried to change it.

“Yes, quotas are unconstitutional. But quotas are not the only way to address the root problem of the War on Drugs’ impact on communities of color,” Minority Cannabis Business Association policy director Jason Ortiz told ThinkProgress. Lawmakers can revise the measure to make 15 percent a goal instead of a quota.

Reparations in a whitewashed industry

Either way, the fact that Ohio’s leaders are sensitive to the concept of racial disparities in the cultivation, distribution, and sale of medical pot is promising. The state is projected to see some $900 million in annual sales of medicinal cannabis by 2020 -– and communities of color have been denied access to similar gigantic spurts of economic activity elsewhere over the past few years.

“A lot of states say that if you’ve been convicted of a marijuana offense you cannot have access to the industry, and that’s damaging to communities of color who have been disproportionately charged with those offenses,” Ortiz said.

There are now more than 3,000 pot shops in the country. But “it appears that fewer than three dozen…are owned by black people,” BuzzFeed’s Amanda Chicago Lewis found in a lengthy review of the industry this spring.

Colorado had just one black-owned dispensary as of December, nearly three years after voters legalized recreational cannabis. And racial disparities in arrest rates for cannabis crimes have gotten worse in Colorado since legalization.

As the movement to end pot prohibition has gained ground, policy debates have begun evolving beyond simple questions of whether or not to legalize. Well-known race disparities in drug prosecutions and arrests are spawning significant debate in legalization circles over “war reparations,” Marijuana Policy Project senior legislative counsel Chris Lindsey said in an interview.

Just don’t do this. It doesn’t make society safer.

“I don’t really think very many people oppose the spirit of trying to make licenses available to disenfranchised minorities,” said Lindsey, who expects Ohio lawmakers to fix the quotas issue in a lame-duck session later this year.

But the Ohio stumble serves to highlight a more fundamental error in legalization laws — and one that will linger nationwide unless lawmakers get over the idea that a past drug crime should bar someone from going legit in the future. Policy wonks can work around the quotas issue, but it will take a deeper shift in political winds to break the new industry from old injustices.

The blacklist

Ohio’s law includes dozens of crimes that would disqualify licensees and would-be pot cultivators. Regulators have the power to decide that some of those convictions won’t bar people from the business if they are at least five years old, but they aren’t required to offer any such exemptions.

“They basically said, ‘Here’s our list of naughties and you guys can go back and revisit that list,’” Lindsey said. But the measure is still premised on the idea that people should be disqualified from legal cannabis marketplaces because they engaged with the black market when it was the only game in town.

“Just don’t do this,” he said. “It doesn’t make society safer. If your concern is that you don’t want people who have perpetrated fraud or been involved in banking crimes, OK, that’s related to running a business. But if you just don’t want somebody who’s been involved in the underground economy at some point in their lives to be involved in this just because you don’t want them around, does that really improve society at all?”

Black People Twice As Likely To Be Arrested For Pot In Colorado And Washington – Where It’s LegalJustice by CREDIT: Shutterstock When Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana…thinkprogress.orgCriminal justice disparities explain a lot of the industry’s whitewash, but they aren’t the whole story. It’s obscenely expensive to even apply for a pot business license.

Most states won’t consider your paperwork if you can’t pony up a multi-thousand-dollar fee and prove you have millions on hand to launch your operation, Ortiz said. After years of systematic disruption of black economic power through housing policy, infrastructure policy, and the drug war, the median white family has 13 times as much wealth as the median black family.

Since quotas won’t survive a lawsuit, leaders have to get craftier to level the playing field in the marijuana industry. Ortiz’s organization hopes to drive more ambitious approaches to these disparities.

“The best way to improve access is through economic empowerment,” he said. That means expunging criminal records, reducing licensing costs, routing revenues from the industry back into neglected communities. “We believe that the more people of color there are in the industry, the stronger it will be both in terms of entrepreneurship and in make sure that patients and consumers of color are participating, growing the pie for everyone.”