It was almost 15 years ago, but Malaki Seku-Amen still talks about the day he drove through Del Paso Heights and realized, with no small amount of horror, just how little had changed in his old neighborhood since he was 8 years old.
The abandoned houses. The crumbling infrastructure. The struggling families.
“The devastation from the drug war was still there,” the president of California Urban Partnership told me over coffee last week. “All of the pain and suffering from criminalization.”
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Anyone who has spent time in predominantly black Del Paso Heights lately knows all of this is still true. And yet, with the passage of Proposition 64 last November, finally legalizing marijuana for adults, Sacramento and hundreds of other California cities are rapidly “moving in this direction where the wealth of an underground economy is moving into the hands of rich, white investors and entrepreneurs,” Seku-Amen said.
The same people who went to prison in disproportionate numbers for selling marijuana are on the verge of being cut out of California’s multibillion-dollar legal marijuana industry – and, without help, could even become victims of it.
Seku-Amen, a black guy and former lobbyist with the NAACP, is not OK with that. Neither is his partner in advocacy, Jim Keddy, a white guy who spent years as the director of the faith-based PICO California and as vice president with the California Endowment.
Together, they are demanding that local governments adopt a reparations strategy that would begin to repair the damage done to communities of color. People who, because of years of over-policing and over-incarceration, grew up in broken homes, the foster care system or in poverty because their family’s primary wage earner was in prison.
“We don’t currently have a mechanism for equity,” Keddy said. Oakland is the only model.
Meanwhile, in Sacramento, 43 percent of the people arrested for marijuana between 2012 and 2016 were black, even though we make up just 15 percent of the population. On the other hand, 20 percent of the people arrested for weed were white and they make up 35 percent of the city’s population.
To change this, city by city and county by county, Keddy founded Youth Forward, a statewide policy organization that’s focused on the impact of marijuana policy on families from a racial and health equity point of view. Keddy is executive director and Seku-Amen is secretary.
They make an odd couple, for sure. But listening to them talk, a one, two-punch of passion and knowledge, it’s hard to deny their argument.
Proposition 64 gives local governments a lot of leeway to set public policy, ranging from whether people with criminal records can be employed in the legal marijuana industry to how much it costs to get a business license.
For Sacramento, the issue is particularly timely. On Tuesday, the city’s chief of cannabis policy and enforcement, Joe Devlin, will go before the Law and Legislation Committee to propose making it cheaper and easier for minorities and small-business owners to enter the industry.
Gone could be the blanket ban on felons and requirements for criminal background checks, as well as some of the steep prices to make edibles and wax. Devlin wants the city to take a less heavy-handed approach to the fledgling marijuana industry.
“It was a one-size-fits-all model for an industry that isn’t one size fits all,” he said.
Devlin sees what he is proposing as an equity plan for minority communities, such as Del Paso Heights. But Seku-Amen and Keddy, who have been working with him behind the scenes, want the committee and, eventually, Mayor Darrell Steinberg and the City Council to go even further.
They first made their case in April. In a letter that was also signed by the Greater Sacramento Urban League and Sacramento NAACP, they urged council members to consider an equity plan similar to one implemented Oakland.
There, half of the city’s marijuana business licenses are being held for people who were incarcerated for the drug or lived for a decade or more in one of the police districts with a disproportionate number of marijuana arrests.
The jury is out on how Oakland’s policy is working, but one thing is clear: Correcting the damage of the drug war won’t happen without intentional public policy.
Waving background checks for people with nonviolent drug crimes is one thing. It’s quite another to, say, fund the creation of a marijuana business incubator for people who have been convicted of possession or low-level dealing, for example.
There’s also the intentional mitigation of sparing children from addiction. Keddy, who spent his career doing advocacy work on public health issues, is worried that Big Marijuana will do what Big Tobacco did and market to minorities in poor neighborhoods.
It will probably happen in North Sacramento and off Power Inn Road, where there’s likely to be a concentration of cultivation businesses in the warehouses near mostly minority neighborhoods. And without a plan for intensive education and outreach for these neighborhoods, the kids there are likely to get hooked first.
And what a travesty that would be. The same neighborhoods victimized by the drug war would become the victims of the legal industry. That’s why the millions of dollars from the state’s marijuana tax fund, 60 percent of which is supposed to go to youths, must be doled out in an intentional way by local governments.
“They didn’t just inherit the ability to tax and make policy (on marijuana),” Seku-Amen said. “They also inherited the responsibility to repair the damages of institutional racism meted out against black and brown people.”
The Law and Legislation Committee can start doing that on Tuesday.