Drug laws have historically been racist. Marijuana activists are helping minority dealers go legal
Drug laws have historically been racist. Marijuana activists are helping minority dealers go legal
Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY Published 6:01 a.m. ET Feb. 21, 2019 | Updated 7:39 a.m. ET Feb. 21, 2019
Fourth-generation Oakland native Tucky Blunt grew up around weed. His grandmother used it. So did his parents and his friends.
Blunt (yes, that's his real last name) started selling to friends in the neighborhood when he was 16. He was usually careful, buying in bulk from a trusted supplier and selling to customers who'd call him to meet up.
After nearly a decade of illegal sales, it was $80 of pot that got him in trouble. He was found with a handful of small baggies stashed in his pants when police officers came for him, tipped off by someone Blunt thought was a friend.
"We were out there trying to make money to help support our families at a time when people didn't have a lot money. We didn't think we were hurting anyone," said Blunt, now 39. "I liked weed. I knew people who liked weed. Why not facilitate them getting good weed? That's how I looked at it."
His 2004 arrest and subsequent conviction left Blunt with a 10-year felony probation, allowing the cops to stop and search him anytime, for any reason. Meanwhile, all around Oakland, young black men like him were getting arrested while most of the white guys who were selling weed were left alone.
"It affected everybody in my circle because it was only targeted to us. I knew white people that was selling weed that never went to jail," said Blunt. "The war on drugs was just about putting as many of us in jail in possible. It tore up a lot of families."
The U.S. war on drugs has for decades disproportionately devastated minority communities by punishing people like Blunt and creating a cycle of poverty, incarceration and limited employment options, legal and social justice experts say.
Now, lawmakers and legalization advocates across the country are demanding not just cannabis legalization, but remedies to address decades of demonstrably racist policing, from laws that automatically expunge criminal records for marijuana dealing and possession, to policies that would give minority communities assistance in building cannabis businesses.
The same year as Blunt's arrest, Oakland's voters ordered police officers to make marijuana enforcement their lowest priority, below even jaywalking. But a decade later, the problem was laid bare: Officers were still arresting black men for marijuana crimes at rates staggeringly higher than whites.
According to the city's own statistics, 77 percent of the 2015 marijuana arrests in Oakland were of African-Americans, while whites represented just 4 percent of those arrests, even though the city’s population is about 30 percent white and 30 percent black.
Similar data has been reported throughout the U.S. While marijuana legalization has reduced the overall number of marijuana arrests, people of color are still being targeted by police.
Even in states with largely white populations, black people using or selling marijuana still face high arrest rates.
Take Colorado, the first state to legalize marijuana in 2012. There, the total number of marijuana arrests decreased by 52 percent between 2012 and 2017, from 12,709 to 6,153, according to state statistics. But at the same time, the marijuana arrest rate for African-Americans — 233 per 100,000 — was nearly double that of whites in 2017, and that's in a state that's 84 percent white.
In Alaska, of the 17 marijuana arrests in 2016, 29 percent were of African-Americans, even though they represent just 4 percent of the state’s population, making Alaska’s marijuana arrest rate for African-Americans nearly 10 times higher than that of whites. The state made recreational marijuana legal in 2014.
And in Washington, D.C., where marijuana is legal, a black person is 11 times more likely than a white person to be arrested for public consumption of marijuana, according to Metropolitan Police Department statistics.
Health statistics show that whites and African-Americans use marijuana at the roughly equivalent rates, which means the disparity in arrests is driven not by use, but by police.
Correcting years of 'discriminatory enforcement'
California has taken the lead in trying to amend years of racist drug policies.
In 2016, the state approved legal recreational marijuana in a ballot measure that also allowed people with pot arrests to get their records expunged. So few people took advantage of the opportunity, however, that state lawmakers last fall passed a new law ordering prosecutors to automatically review and potentially reduce or dismiss sentences and records for low-level marijuana offenses. It's the first statewide law of its kind.
While such efforts have the potential to make a difference, advocates say it would have been better to include, from the very start, automatic expungement and other provisions to aid minority communities.
"Once the train has left the station, it's hard to attach new boxcars," said Christine De La Rosa, who owns marijuana businesses in California and Oregon, and is lobbying to pass legal recreational pot in New York state. "People are starting to understand and to put the pieces together: This child's father has been in jail for 16 years on a minor possession charge and then right across the street at the marijuana convention you have a bunch of white guys in ties getting rich."
Similar debates over social justice reform and marijuana laws are unfolding in both cities and states with legal marijuana and those without it. In Seattle, prosecutors have sought to abolish hundreds of convictions against people arrested with small amounts of pot. In New Jersey and New York, lawmakers are looking to legalize pot and expunge marijuana records once they do.
In Baltimore, State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby argues that police and prosecutor resources are better spent focusing on the city's extraordinarily high murder rate than on marijuana cases. Last month, Mosby announced that her office would no longer prosecute any marijuana possession cases, regardless of amount or prior criminal record, unless there was demonstrated intent to distribute. And she announced her office would vacate about 5,000 marijuana-related convictions dating back to 2011.
Maryland decriminalized pot possession in 2014 but police still can and do issue citations. In a white paper released by her office, Mosby said of the 431 marijuana citations issued by Baltimore police in 2017, 95 percent of them went to African-Americans, even though the city is roughly 60 percent black and 30 percent white. And of those citations, more than 40 percent were issued in one majority-black neighborhood.
Drug laws have been "disproportionately enforced in communities of color and that's creating an erosion of public trust," Mosby told USA TODAY. "We're moving toward legalization and it makes absolutely no sense as the top prosecutor to be complicit in that discriminatory enforcement."
As a prosecutor, Mosby said she's all too aware of how a criminal record can hurt someone for decades, even generations. In Baltimore, for instance, even though simple marijuana possession is a civil infraction, someone caught with a little bit of cannabis but without an ID can be arrested and booked, turning the civil case into a criminal one.
"When you think about those collateral consequences, it's got impacts on housing, employment, adoption, mobility, property rights," said Mosby. "It's a greater realization that these failed policies did not work and we need to take a different approach."
Who gets to sell legal marijuana
Kevin Sabet, the CEO of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said states should decriminalize marijuana and provide drug treatment, rather than punishing users.
That could help lots of Americans targeted by the war on drugs. But he doubts it will help people who have been shut out of the legal weed industry because of their records. His group argues that the licensing systems created to sell marijuana are primarily benefiting companies racing to become the next Big Tobacco.
"The pot industry is largely rich, white, male, and despite lip service by some legalization advocates, this won’t change anytime soon," he said. "The pot industry requires major institutional capitol, and unless a state is handing out seven-figure checks to certain populations, license preference programs won’t make a dent."
To understand how this situation occurred, you first have to understand not just the laws governing marijuana legalization, but the regulations implementing the stores and licenses.
In general, the first states that legalized recreational marijuana made it hard for anyone with a criminal record to enter the marijuana business, and gave preference to people already operating medical marijuana businesses, which were in many cases subject to even tougher licensing laws because those stores came first, when regulators were at their wariest.
And since small-business loans are usually reserved for people without drug convictions, an arrest for simple possession also shut many would-be entrepreneurs out of now-legal cannabis business opportunities.
The end result? Tech workers, real estate investors and guys who owned construction companies have been the market leaders for years now, joined increasingly by white politicians like former House Speaker John Boehner, who backed the war on drugs and then after leaving office, joined the board of a cannabis company in April 2018.
A first-of-its kind survey conducted by Marijuana Business Daily in 2017 found that whites made up 81 percent of people who had either started a marijuana company or had an ownership stake. New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat, cited those statistics at a hearing earlier this month, suggesting that most marijuana legalization systems were actually compounding the racial wealth gap.
“It all comes down to money in the bank, time and community support,” said Adam Powers, who with his twin brother Andrew, has worked in dispensaries and as cannabis consultants in Washington state. The Powers brothers, who are African-American, say they frequently deal with marijuana store owners looking to launch stores the pair compare to a Starbucks experience: non-threatening, consistent and accessible. And bland.
"From a logical standpoint, I can agree with it," Powers said. "You make the industry super hard to get into, that only people who are squeaky clean can get into it, because you know all eyes are on you. However, that is the approach always, always, that you take to whitewash things and make it clean. That's literally what you say before you fire the black people and the minorities."
Powers, 31, said social justice was a clear motivating factor for many voters who supported legalization in Washington; they just didn't realize that legalizing pot sales wouldn't immediately right decades of wrongs.
"My life as a minority is a little bit easier knowing, hoping, that's one less reason for someone to bug me over something I use medically or recreationally, like alcohol," he said.
Fears of being targeted by police — especially federal law enforcement — kept many African-Americans without arrest records from immediately joining the semi-legal cannabis industry in its early days. For them, waiting to see how things shook out just made sense.
Actor and pot entrepreneur Whoopi Goldberg took a different approach. A longtime advocate for both racial equality and marijuana legalization, Goldberg, 63, co-founded a medical marijuana company in 2016, counting on her celebrity and age to insulate her from the unfair policing faced by young black men, she said.
“When you look at who is in jail for marijuana, it kind of explains it all,” she said. “Black folks with marijuana went to jail a lot more than white folks with marijuana. I think it’s always been guy oriented, and in particular white guys, because they could get away with it.”
Helping drug dealers go legal
For many marijuana legalization activists, it's now up to local governments to diversify the legal pot industry by clearing conviction records and handing out subsidies. If white men have unfairly benefited from marijuana legalization, then it's only fair that minority communities be given extra help now because they suffered more, the thinking goes.
"We actually do have to overcorrect," said Kassandra Frederique, 32, the New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which is lobbying to legalize marijuana in the Empire State. "People from our communities, black and brown communities, were the one first ones to be criminalized. Why shouldn’t we be the first ones to benefit?"
In California, several cities have created cannabis equity programs to help former drug dealers go legal. The programs include business development, loan assistance and mentor relationships. In September 2018, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to partially fund such programs. The bill stated it would help ensure "that persons most harmed by cannabis criminalization and poverty be offered assistance to enter the multibillion-dollar industry as entrepreneurs or as employees with high-quality, well-paying jobs.”
In Massachusetts, regulators have also launched an equity program after acknowledging that while the state's population is 22 percent Latino or African-American, that same demographic makes up 75 percent of people imprisoned under mandatory minimums for drug crimes. The Bay State's equity program is specifically reserved for residents with a drug conviction, or who are married to someone with a drug conviction.
Years after he was arrested, Blunt is now the very first Oakland resident to benefit from the city's special license preference program. Under the equity program, longtime Oakland residents who were hurt by the war on drugs are getting priority, preference and special assistance to open up marijuana stores so they can see cannabis legally. Blunt, who got his criminal record cleared once he finished his sentence, actually had to get it temporarily opened back up so equity program managers could verify his arrest.
Blunt tried to break into the industry on his own a few years back but couldn't crack into California's majority-white cannabis club scene. The equity program helped him launch his marijuana store, Blunts+Moore, in November. He sees the national push for more equity programs as a key component to easing the damage caused by the War on Drugs.
"We're not just budtenders, not just security guards anymore. We're owners now," he said. "To be able to sell this legally in my city, literally 10 blocks from where I caught my case, I'm fine — I wasn't going to let anything stop me. I'm the new kid on the block and I'm here to change the game."