Cannabis Social Equity Programs Are Imperfect but Critically Important
Let’s have an uncomfortable (but very necessary) conversation about crime, punishment, justice, and rationality.
How cannabis became weed
The origins of cannabis prohibition are subject to some debate. Many blame William Randolph Hearst, claiming he feared that hemp might provide a viable paper alternative that would undercut the timber industry in which he was heavily invested. They say he mounted a very effective campaign to villainize cannabis as a scourge on our community. Jack Herer promoted this theory in his influential book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes.
Others, most notably Dale Gieringer, the Director of CA NORML and one of the foremost cannabis prohibition historians, dismiss the Hearst legend. First, argues Gieringer, Herer didn’t provide any real proof, and second, Hearst’s publishing empire was actually being squeezed by Canadian paper producers, so he likely would have welcomed an alternative. In Gieringer’s opinion, cannabis was simply swept up into a bureaucratic fray -- a convenient addition to the laundry list of other substances that were criminalized in the early parts of the 20th century.
What we can probably all agree on is that once cannabis was added to the prohibition list, it has been consistently leveraged by those in power as a fear-mongering tool -- proof of the loose morals of “bad” races. Put simply, cannabis was weaponized.
You might have heard of Henry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He was instrumental in the “reefer madness” propaganda that implanted itself into the American psyche for half a century, and which ultimately led to the incarceration of countless people of color and the decimation of minority communities across the United States.
In Anslinger’s own words: “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”
The social toll
The impact of these words is staggering. President Richard Nixon kicked off the modern era of the War on Drugs with the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. Since then the government has spent billions of taxpayer dollars enforcing drug policy. Cannabis remains a Schedule 1 drug, which afforded law enforcement the leeway to prosecute heavily. The proliferation of private prisons spawned major growth in the demand for prisoners, and drug policies filled that demand extremely well. During this time, the rate of arrest for minorities rose well above that of their white counterparts and remains disproportionate despite roughly equal usage rates, for cannabis.
In 2017, 660,000 people were arrested for cannabis law violations. 91% of those people were arrested for possession alone (not manufacturing or trafficking) and 47% of those people were Black or Latino.
Thankfully, as we witness state after state come to terms with reality and maneuver out of the cannabis dark ages, we are also seeing a concerted effort to bring minority players into the fold. Many states not only are passing legislation to decriminalize both the medicinal and recreational use of cannabis, they are also attempting to rectify the injustices of the past by helping victims of the drug war. Social equity programs are sprouting up all over the country, and California is attacking the issue head-on.
In the words of California state Senator Steven Bradford, the author of the California Cannabis Equity Act of 2018, “Although California isn’t the first state to legalize the adult use and sale of cannabis, we can be the first state to do it right -- by including those who were once punished but can now contribute.”
In other words, the intent of the legislation is to forge a path toward business ownership for the people who have been hurt most by previous cannabis laws. The intent should be praised, so let’s praise it. The execution, however, at least in the eyes of some cannabis industry insiders, is lackluster. In addition to staffing and funding shortfalls for the programs, as well as long waiting periods for applicants, there is a growing concern about provisions in the regulations related to outside investors. Some point out that investors with big pockets can potentially partner with minority applicants as a way into the industry, then take advantage via bad contracts or financial pressure.
Legislation like the California act, though, represent a very important beginning. We can always poke holes in early attempts at redemptive lawmaking. But, the fact that social equity programs are cropping up is a promising bright spot. For too long, cannabis has undeservedly served as a cultural tool for the powerful to victimize the powerless. Let's use the foundation of the programs - the intent of righting many wrongs - and build from there. With an open and honest dialogue, and a watchful eye over opportunists that could potentially take advantage, we can get to a better, more equitable spot.