California, Criminal Justice, and Ensuring Equity in the Cannabis Industry


The cannabis industry is estimated to provide a quarter of a million jobs by 2020, but who will benefit from those jobs can be determined by the efforts, or lack thereof, on the part of regulators to ensure that the cannabis industry is inclusive and equitable for all. As cannabis is federally illegal (for now), state and local governments are the gatekeepers of the industry, and most state regulations prohibit persons with criminal convictions from participating. Likely in an effort to legitimize the industry and prevent potential illicit sales, this type of policy ends up harming individuals as well as the industry to which they hope to contribute. In contrast, we can look to examples of cannabis regulations in Oakland, Calif, and elsewhere that have been carefully crafted to try to make a positive impact on both the industry and the community.

The War on Drugs and corresponding institutional racism has not only impacted modern-day policing and the criminal justice system. These same patterns have contributed to the demographics of the nascent cannabis industry: overwhelmingly white and dominated by wealthy male entrepreneurs, most of whom have likely not been entangled in the criminal justice system or the negative impacts that come along with a felony conviction.

Put simply, US drug policies first forced the cultivation and distribution of marijuana underground, then jailed people of color for participating in the black market (and the violence that is inherent to any underground market), and then turned around and excluded those same people from participating in the now legal cannabis industry. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of reasons why rich white men dominate virtually every industry, and there are plenty of people who are incarcerated for legitimate reasons, but there is a cruel irony in the way that many state and local regulators have perpetuated the marginalization of people of color through their cannabis policies.

The good news is that legal cannabis is an industry born out of grassroots activism, and there are a lot of people working hard to make sure that it can be an industry that prioritizes equity and accountability for all stakeholders. A great example of these efforts can be found in California’s Proposition 64, as well as in the local regulations adopted by the city of Oakland.

California makes up the world’s fifth largest economy and has long been home to one of the largest and most loosely regulated medical marijuana programs, so it was exceedingly important to craft regulations that would reflect the impact that the California cannabis industry is sure to have. Reflecting this, “Proposition 64 did a number of things to try and increase inclusion and diversity in the market, including having many different categories and sizes for licensure, scaled licensing fees, not allowing prior drug conviction exclusions from licensure, record expungement, and community investment,” says Tamar Todd of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), an organization that was hugely instrumental in creating the regulations.

Despite decriminalization of marijuana use, more than 6,500 people were incarcerated in 2015 for nonviolent marijuana offenses in California. Since Prop 64 went into effect, almost 5,000 people have applied for resentencing or conviction redesignation, but according to the Judicial Council of California, several hundred thousand to one million Californians could be positively affected by this policy.

In Oakland, “The data shows that for over two decades, black and brown residents were arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses at disparately high rates, while largely white cannabis cultivators, manufacturers and distributors…flourished under changing laws designed to accommodate the burgeoning industry,” according to City of Oakland Race and Equity Director Darlene Flynn. In response, the city has implemented an equity permit program, through which half of all cannabis business licenses must go to minorities targeted by drug war. Additionally, the city is earmarking $3.4 million in cannabis business license tax revenue to offer no-interest loans and other assistance to help equity permit holders open for business.

California shouldn’t and won’t be the only state to attempt to repair some of the harms of the War on Drugs through cannabis regulation. Closer to home, Massachusetts has passed legislation to give priority review to license applicants in communities that have been disproportionately affected by former marijuana laws, if at least 51% of employees have a prior drug-related conviction. This type of policy allows employers to support formerly incarcerated individuals re-entering society, and allows those with prior convictions to lend their specialized knowledge to a legal business.

None of these progressive policies would be possible without the help of activists, whose efforts to seat themselves at the regulating table will surely result in a more equitable industry for all. The bar has officially been raised, and as more states and localities find themselves tasked with regulating marijuana, they have no excuse not to follow these examples. I’m looking at you, Rhode Island legislature!