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Golden State Green Rush: Is Cannabis Equity Reparations for the War on Drugs?

No state has a relationship remotely like the one between California and marijuana. We annually consume 2.5 million pounds of the drug and produce more than 13 million pounds of it.

The summer mixers had not done the trick. Last year Oakland, California, which was launching the partnership component of its groundbreaking Cannabis Equity Assistance Program, found that City Hall meet-and-greets between the street-level victims of the war on drugs and those who had gotten rich by growing and supplying marijuana weren’t going to instantly result in legal-weed deal-making whoopee.

As part of California’s 2018 adult-use marijuana legalization, Oakland sets aside half of its marijuana business permits to grow, test, manufacture, transport, deliver and dispense pot for equity applicants — — newly up-from-the-underground residents who make up to 80 percent of the city’s median income ($53,000) and either have “a cannabis conviction out of Oakland or [have] lived for 10 of the last 20 years in police beats that experienced a disproportionately higher amount of law enforcement with respect to cannabis.” The city’s cannabis equity program has a tiered qualification system, as do California’s other three existing programs in San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles.

Oakland’s cannabis equity program may have gotten off to an awkward start, but that hasn’t stopped the idea of equity in adult-use marijuana economies from spreading even beyond the state. However, if this bold concept is to cohere into a concrete approach that can work both statewide and nationally, the challenges of addressing wildly mixed signals at the federal level, relations with the still-illegal cannabis market — whose economy and membership dwarfs legal weed in size — and embedded bureaucratic forces must be overcome.

Oakland earmarked $3.4 million in interest-free loans for those whose experience with pot had been demonstrably more toxic than those of white residents.

“General applicants” (the mostly white entrepreneurs who have conducted business at a remove from Oakland’s worst drug war suffering) gain improved marketplace access by partnering with equity applicants — who are mostly black, but not always. Cannabis Equity bureaucracy most shared asset is physical space — which the moneyed entrepreneurs can offer the city’s disadvantaged pot businesspeople. Cannabis equity can appear to be the nearest thing, conceptually, to reparations in America.

However, last year’s City Hall mixers had failed to create much chemistry between the cannabis haves and have-nots. Darlene Flynn, the city’s director of the Department of Race and Equity, realized that between the mixers’ interactional awkwardness and municipal government’s usual bureaucracy, Oakland’s cannabis office would have to farm out the matchmaking.

“We needed some tools for helping people meet,” Flynn later acknowledged in an email.

No state has a relationship dynamic remotely like the one between California and marijuana. We officially consume 2.5 million pounds of the drug each year, more than any other state. California produces more than 13 million pounds annually. This means that, even before dipping its toes into the uncharted waters of restorative justice, the legal weed market must contend with vast market and political forces. While an illegal market nearly five times the size of the legitimate marketplace comports itself in the shadows, less than 10 percent of the state’s adult-use market is legal. Relations between the cannabis underground and California’s above-board pot sales sector haven’t been more tense than in recent memory.

Still, governments had begun to follow Oakland’s lead in assuring that the newly legal marijuana market will be open to historically discriminated-against populations. Oakland earmarked $3.4 million in interest-free loans for those whose experience with pot had been demonstrably more toxic than those of white residents.

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