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Oakland Explores Reparations for Those Persecuted by the War on Drugs

For decades Oakland police arrested people for marijuana crimes. The city vying to be America's cannabis capital is exploring how to bring those people into the legal cannabis business.

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In a move that runs contrary to federal law, the state of California has taken steps to reduce sentences or even release people convicted of minor marijuana-related offenses.

Michael Robinson Chavez | Getty Images

The move came as part of Proposition 64, the statewide amendment that voters approved in November 2016 allowing for the sale of adult-use marijuana in the Golden State. Those sales are expected to begin in 2018.

As part of the amendment, those already convicted of lower level pot crimes could appeal for a reduced sentence. Hundreds of inmates have already been released. More are expected in the coming years.

However, the city of Oakland has taken the movement a big step forward.

Related: Federal Legalization of Marijuana Not Likely Soon but Proponents Are Trying

War on Drugs Reparations

In Oakland, city leaders voted this summer to put in place a new initiative called the Equity Permit Program. The goal of the program is nothing short of offering a form of reparations for what many see as injustices done in the name of the War on Drugs.

The plan calls for 50 percent of all the licenses for medical marijuana dispensaries to go to people from two groups. The first are those convicted in the past 10 years for violating marijuana possession laws that will soon no longer apply in California. The second are those who live in neighborhoods that statistics show were heavily targeted by police for drug arrests. These areas are primarily in Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods.

Related: Is Big Pharma for or Against Legalizing Medical Marijuana? Maybe Both.

Racial Disparity

City leaders also had an analysis done on marijuana arrests in Oakland. The findings confirmed the belief that poor and minority communities have been the targets of much of the War on Drugs.

The city report found that 77 percent of cannabis-related arrests in 2015 were African-American suspects and another 15 percent were Hispanic. White residents made up only 4 percent of arrests, while Asians accounted for 2 percent. Whites, blacks and Hispanics each make up about 30 percent of the population in Oakland. Asians are about 7 percent.

The report noted that the “these patterns are not particular to the Oakland Police Department but rather consistent with the national War on Drugs. Nevertheless, these policies are deeply problematic.”

Federal arrests continue

While Oakland has approved taking the radical step of rewarding dispensary licenses to those arrested for marijuana charges or living in neighborhoods with a high number of arrests, federal law continues to keep people locked up in California and around the country.

Medical marijuana is legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia. Adult-use marijuana is now legal in eight states. But cannabis remains a Schedule 1 illegal drug at the federal level.

Related: Getting Healthy, Not High: Using Cannabis to Fight Cancer

Even as marijuana legalization has swept large sections of the nation, federal arrests have continued. About 3,500 people were arrested in 2016 on federal-related marijuana charges.

However, the number of marijuana arrests at the federal level have dropped from about 7,000 per year in 2011 and 2012. Most of the charges are for trafficking in marijuana. About 122 arrests in 2016 were for possession.

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