Erika D. Smith

Maimed by war on drugs, black people left behind in California’s green rush

Marijuana plants in a flower room at the grow facility for Sense of Healing dispensary in Denver.
Marijuana plants in a flower room at the grow facility for Sense of Healing dispensary in Denver. Bloomberg

It was on Good Friday when Derrell Roberts, co-founder of the Roberts Family Development Center, told me how he felt about weed. Specifically, an initiative on the June ballot that will ask Sacramento voters to approve a 5 percent tax on commercial marijuana cultivation.

The money, as much as $5 million a year, would be set aside for programs for at-risk youth, including for early childhood education, tutoring, gang diversion and arts activities. Programs that his Roberts Family Development Center in Del Paso Heights always struggles to fund.

Sounds good, right? Except for the part about illegal marijuana grows in residential neighborhoods being magnets for violent crime.

“I just know this,” Roberts said, leaning forward. “Marijuana got a lot of black men put in jail. And if I can use marijuana to keep young black men out of jail – and that’s where I’m at now – then that’s what I’m going to do.”

Up until that moment, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what I found so intriguing about a pot tax in Sacramento and, at the same time, what I continue to find so troubling about other, larger efforts to bring the drug into the mainstream.

It’s not that I’m a hater. I support legalization.

Because of this long march toward saner drug policies, few people in California get thrown in jail for years for smoking or possessing small amounts of weed anymore. The stigma of the drug is going away, too, as more people begin to see it for what it is: a freakin’ plant. Even my aging mother, with her aches and pains and her tendency to trip and fall, now swears by the medicinal qualities of cannabis oil.

But for all of the positive steps that California and other states have taken, there has been unfairness, too. A recent investigation by Buzzfeed, which, in addition to time-sucking, mind-numbing online quizzes, actually produces some good journalism now and then, makes this point all too clear.

It found that “fewer than three dozen of the 3,200 to 3,600 storefront marijuana dispensaries in the United States are owned by black people.” That works out to about 1 percent.

That’s a percentage so low that it should be criminal. Instead it’s a percentage that’s largely ignored by the overwhelmingly white politicians, lobbyists and Silicon Valley investors who are driving the public policy conversations about cannabis, and how and by whom the industry should be brought from shadows into the light.

The people hurt most by the decades-long war on drugs – poor black people and brown people – are being locked out, forced out, bought out and even fearfully opting out of an industry that is one of the fastest growing in the country.

California already brings in about $1 billion a year for medical marijuana sales. If voters approve a November ballot initiative to make it legal for recreational use, the added sales could more than double the national market for legal weed – currently estimated at $2.7 billion.

With all of that money floating around, one would think someone, somewhere would keep official statistics on diversity within the industry. But no.

To come up with 1 percent, Buzzfeed conducted more than 150 interviews with dispensary owners, industry insiders and salespeople who do business with a lot of pot shops.

I haven’t conducted anywhere close to that many interviews on this topic, but based on what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen, Buzzfeed’s findings definitely ring true.

Just wandering around the Emerald Cup trade show back in December, the lack of people of color among the growers was striking. Panel discussions on diversity focused mainly on getting more women into the trade, a noble cause as well. But given that the annual festival is billed as “the Oscars of the cannabis industry,” it should’ve been nicknamed #EmeraldCupSoWhite.

It’s not that black and brown people aren’t getting involved with legal cannabis at all.

Snoop Dogg sells it. So does former NBA All-Star Cliff Robinson, and Tommy Chong, of ’70’s and ’80’s stoner fame, is hawking products, too. But they are few and far between.

Part of the problem is policies. Many states make it tough for anyone with any kind of criminal record involving drugs to take part in the legal industry. Given that black people comprise about half of the more than 2 million Americans behind bars – a rate nearly six times the rate of whites – and many of them because of policies from the war on drugs, that’s a problem.

In California, Proposition 47, which reduced some nonviolent drug felonies to misdemeanors, helps. But there are still some questions about people with felony records being able to participate in the medical market. The language in the November initiative, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, is better than what other states offer, but can be confusing, especially when compared to the more restrictive rules under the current medical pot law.

Also part of the problem is that discrepancies remain in how drug charges are meted out, even in states that have legalized marijuana. Several studies show that black people are still more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, even though both races use the drug at similar rates. In Colorado, for example, blacks get busted for possession more than twice as often as whites do, despite accounting for only 4 percent of the state’s population.

This has to change. And yet it’s one reason why Roberts shrugs off the possibility of commercial marijuana growing being zoned for some of the seven inner-city neighborhoods where his center offers after-school, preschool, mentoring and counseling programs.

“They’re already here,” he said of the growers.

The question is how can the neighborhoods around them use what they’re doing for the good of the broader community. The question is how can the city bring them out of the shadows and into the light, maybe with some police protection for business owners instead of police raids for criminals.

Even if Sacramento voters decide against a pot tax, and there are plenty of reasons to do so – namely that ballot box budgeting can tie the hands of government in a crunch – you have to admit there’s some serendipity here. That the same drug that led to the destruction of so many families in so many Sacramento neighborhoods could, years later, save those same families and those same neighborhoods.

Really, it’s only fair.