Will California’s Green Rush Leave People of Color Behind?

On January 1, 2018, the gates to California’s “green rush” will swing open, and everyone from growers to retailers is jockeying to take advantage of the state’s expanding marijuana market. In addition to medical marijuana, recreational marijuana for adult use will soon be legal.

While marijuana remains a controlled substance under federal law — creating a tricky legal situation for California — advocates hope the slow wave of state-by-state legalization will change that picture.

But the question of who gets to take advantage of the green rush is proving to be a challenge, with some critics arguing that people with prior experience in the market — and the drug convictions to go along with it — are being cut out of the picture. As the state applies itself to business basics like connecting cannabis-related businesses with banking services, some are focused on another issue: the almost half a million people arrested for marijuana-related offenses in the last decade.

While state law broadly governs the legalization of the industry, individual legislative bodies, like city councils and boards of supervisors, are passing specific legislative packages to determine the fine-grained details. Some deal with zoning matters, for example, while others set standards for permits.

To obtain a permit for a cannabis-related business, the prospective owner must successfully pass a background check. Past drug convictions can cause people to fail, depriving them of access to the legal market for a product they’re incredibly knowledgeable about.

But past drug convictions aren’t the only issue at stake. California, like other states, has an extremely racialized arrest and incarceration rate. People of color are disproportionately impacted by drug convictions and this is evidence of racist policy and law enforcement practices – not an increased likelihood to commit crimes. As Amanda Chicago Lewis put it at Buzzfeed, this appears to be a whites-only weed boom,

So how do we solve this problem?

In theory, Proposition 64 — the Adult Use of Marijuana Act — has provisions for expungement of drug records, making California somewhat unique among other states that have legalized cannabis. Thousands have already applied to have their records expunged or reduced, including incarcerated people who could potentially leave jail or spend less time there.

Not all marijuana-related convictions are eligible, though, and people with other criminal offenses on their records may have their requests denied.

Additionally, expungement requires an awareness of this new legislation and the resources to file a request. Organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance are working with Legal Aid and other organizations to hold free clinics, making it easier for people to access clean records. Some district attorneys’ offices are proactively notifying people with convictions to connect them with resources — but that’s not the case for everyone, and that means eligible people are missing out on an opportunity.

For cases where expungement isn’t an option, or someone doesn’t know about it, some cities — like Los Angeles and Oakland – are setting up an “equity permitting” program for cannabis-related businesses. In these cities, people with marijuana-related offenses on their records are explicitly invited to apply for permits — and even given priority. Some view these initiatives as reparations for a long and costly drug war.

But there’s another problem standing in the way of people of color, and it’s another shade of green: money. The racial wealth gap in the United States is tremendous, and it takes thousands — sometimes tens of thousands — of dollars to open up a new cannabis-related business that complies with state and local regulations.

Some organizations, like the Hood Incubator, are working to counteract this by connecting entrepreneurs with venture capital. But given that white people can generally access funds more readily, setting themselves up to be ready as soon as the state gives the green light, people of color may be left playing catch-up.

Many challenges lie ahead for California as it navigates its new cannabis market, and advocates will be watching closely to see how well the state handles expungement and other practices designed to address racial disparities.