Erika D. Smith

Sacramento promised black entrepreneurs a cut of the cannabis economy. How long must they wait?

Cannabis products at NRC Holistic Health Services Clinic in Modesto, Calif., on Thursday, April 19, 2018.
Cannabis products at NRC Holistic Health Services Clinic in Modesto, Calif., on Thursday, April 19, 2018.

Sacramento likes to think of itself as a leader — even the leader — of California’s burgeoning cannabis industry. And indeed, over the past year, the city has moved faster than most to start licensing dispensaries, cultivators and manufacturers, determined to collect millions of dollars in tax revenue sooner rather than later.

Too bad the same can't be said of the city's efforts to create a cannabis equity program.

On this, Sacramento is moving slower than a stoner trying to do calculus, leaving potential participants — predominantly black and brown entrepreneurs from struggling neighborhoods that were over-policed during the war on drugs — wondering when they’re finally going to get a piece of the proverbial pot pie that they were promised.

At this rate, it’s likely to take months. And, for many cash poor, minority entrepreneurs who are itching to get into the market before an invasion of rich, white investors snap up the finite number of city-issued licenses, that could be too late.

On Tuesday, the City Council again put off consideration of the equity program, this time heeding the demands from advocates who say they were left out of the process until the very last minute and want changes.

Left up to city staff, Sacramento's program, dubbed CORE, would focus on residents from a handful of neighborhoods, mostly in south Sacramento where black men were disproportionately arrested and jailed for cannabis charges in the 2000s. Those who are eligible would get financial assistance for licensing, and would be given priority over those who have already applied for licenses.

But before any of that can happen, the city must go through a lengthy bureaucratic process of accepting bids to run a new CORE business support center, which would provide mentoring and tips and accessing capital, among other services.

That means even if the City Council approves the equity program in late June or early July, as planned, it will take a while to get off the ground.

In fact, this is the problem in Oakland.

There, an equity program has been on the books for months, setting aside half of all cannabis business permits for equity applicants. The only problem? It is taking months to complete a study to justify the program's existence and to determine eligibility requirements so Oakland can start handing out $3.4 million in zero-interest loans.

Meanwhile, wealthy white folks are snapping up business licenses and minority entrepreneurs are going out of business while waiting.

So Sacramento, while far from leading on cannabis equity, is hardly alone in California for being slow about it.

Part of the reason is advocates want more.

They have issues with Sacramento's eligibility requirements. They think people who live in Del Paso Heights should be able to participate in the equity program, too, as well as anyone who attended an under-performing school in a neighborhood targeted during the drug war.

They also argue any cannabis business that gets a license should be required to provide a CORE participant with free incubator space.

“What we expect going forward is the city will lead with equity, so that no one gets a business operations permit unless they are coming through an equity relationship,” said Malaki Seku-Amen, a former NAACP lobbyist, who is leading the negotiations with the city. "What is the cost of the war on drugs? What is the value of children, families and neighborhoods being destroyed?”

His point is well taken. Sacramento is clearly still dealing with the fallout of a generation of poor people disproportionately saddled with criminal records.

It’s no coincidence that Meadowview, where police shot an unarmed Stephon Clark in late March, is one of the neighborhoods where black men were arrested on cannabis charges the most in the 2000s. Just like it’s no coincidence that the current communitywide discussion over equity, in terms of the distribution of resources to neighborhoods, resonates so deeply there.

Something needs to be done and Sacramento's cannabis equity program could certainly do more to right the wrongs of the drug war. But there's also something to be said for compromise.

The city and advocates have been talking about a cannabis equity program since last summer. There is too much at stake to keep waiting.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith