California has long been a leader in the marijuana industry, especially on the medical marijuana front, and now, it’s gearing up for legalisation, following the models of states like Colorado and Oregon. In advance of legalisation, though, the state wanted to set up a regulatory framework, which it did in the form of the extensive AB21, which sets out guidelines for the industry, with a twist: Individual municipalities can choose to enact additional guidance. Should local businesses want to open up in those areas, they’ll need to pass the local permitting process before they go to the state. The idea is to give municipalities greater control, and a number of cities are exploring their options.
Oakland was one of the first, and there’s an aspect of the city’s marijuana framework that’s particularly interesting to me: Equity permits.
The marijuana boom in general has been painfully and inescapably white-dominated. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the two biggest are the fact that white people have more access to starting capital, and they have the clean criminal records needed to open marijuana-related businesses. The criminal records that keep people of colour back are the result of decades of racial profiling, and of racialised drug policy laws and the ‘war on drugs’ as a whole. People interested in starting legitimate businesses are being unfairly hampered by the fact that they were targeted by law enforcement in the past.
In this instance, the Oakland City Council wanted to try to mitigate this issue. For every standard permit for a marijuana-related business it issues, it intends to issue an ‘equity permit’ to an applicant who meets standard requirements: Either that person has lived in a high crime neighbourhood for two years or longer, or that person has a marijuana-related drug conviction from the last decade. They also need to retain a 50 percent stake in their businesses.
While these permits aren’t doled out by race, they’re clearly going to have a racialised nature, which is exactly the point. Oakland recognises that people of colour, particularly Black men, who want to get into the industry are going to have a difficult time, and this is one attempt at giving them a leg up, although it doesn’t resolve the tremendous challenge of having access to necessary capital.
However, people are, of course, complaining about equity permits. Some people whine that they’ll have to close, move out of Oakland, or apply for permits elsewhere because of the permitting system, claiming there will be a bottleneck for regular permits while the city allocates equity permits. Others bring up their token Black friend who ‘won’t meet the requirements’ and thus will have to get a permit via the standardised track, and how unfair this all is.
Many of the arguments against equity permits remind me of the thrashing and complaining over affirmative action laws, which is effectively what these are. The city is recognising that people of colour have been put at a disadvantage within the context of the marijuana boom, and that the industry standards to be hugely profitable under legalisation. Instead of being able to join the industry, though, they’re going to be sidelined because of social inequalities.
The industry represents tremendous opportunities for entrepreneurs. In addition to grows and dispensaries or retailers, the industry also relies on lab testing, transport, industrial equipment, retail goods, a variety of tech and apps and more. These things are only going to grow with legalisation and the mainstreaming of weed, and the Bay Area is going to become a hub for that innovation between easy access to the Emerald Triangle, good growing conditions within the Bay itself, and a very lively tech industry that also greatly enjoys pot. Concentrating that wealth in the hands of white people is unjust.
Equity permitting isn’t perfect, and not just because people still need to find the capital to start their businesses. Not everyone will meet the requirements of the law — for example, people need to have been incarcerated in Oakland specifically for marijuana convictions — and not everyone will be able to demonstrate eligibility. But it’s a start, and starts are important when we are talking about mitigating decades of injustices. Weed shouldn’t be a whites only industry, and being proactive about it now means that when California legalises, which it will, people will be on a slightly more equal footing.
The program is the first of its kind in the country, and the city council freely admitted that it would require some adjustments over time. It will likely also evolve as it’s deployed and the city gets a sense of how it’s working out. Lessons learned from the equity permitting programme could be incredibly valuable, allowing other cities to take note and tailor their own ordinances to incorporate the idea as well, and I hope that they do. The legacies of the drug war colour the fight for legalisation from top to bottom, and it’s troubling that after legalisation, people with outstanding criminal records won’t be getting full pardons, and will be cut out of the subsequent emerging industry.
Those who complain about equity permits by and large occupy positions of social privilege, and it doesn’t escape notice that many of them are part of industry groups that intend to build large-scale operations— owned and run by white people. If they have to wait a little longer to get operational because the city needs to balance out the process with equity permits, I can loan them my tiny violin.
Image: wonderlandforever, Flickr