California must lead the nation towards equity.
With California gearing up to responsibly regulate and license both medical and nonmedical commercial cannabis activity by Jan. 1 2018, those committed to social justice must fight to ensure that low income communities and communities of color, are not left behind while the rest of the industry braces itself for the “green rush.”
It is at this critical moment in California history, as we shift away from ineffective policies of prohibition towards responsible regulation that we must acknowledge and commit to address the harms that marijuana prohibition has caused our communities. This is particularly important for low income communities and communities of color in California, who have for decades been subject to disproportionate enforcement.
Although rates of drug use and sales are similar across racial and ethnic lines, black and Latino populations are far more likely to be criminalized than white people. For years these populations have been disproportionately stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, sentenced and labeled with a lifelong criminal record for marijuana related behavior that may now be perfectly legal and commercially licensable under California law.
This disproportionate enforcement was systematic and continued in low income communities and communities of color, despite the progression of more permissive marijuana laws since 1996 when California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana for qualified patients. A 2010 Drug Policy Alliance report details that in Los Angeles, between 2006 and 2008, African Americans were arrested at seven times the rate of whites despite being only 9.6% of population. Even in 2015, just two years ago, African Americans across California were 2x more likely to be arrested for a marijuana misdemeanor and 5x more likely to be arrested for a marijuana felony.
Disproportionate enforcement has caused irrefutable harm to California communities. A simple marijuana arrest often meant lost opportunities of housing, education and employment that were denied because of a criminal record. In the last decade alone, nearly 500,000 Californians have been arrested for marijuana. These individuals and their communities, and the resulting harms that they have experienced must not be forgotten or taken lightly.
Those committed to social justice must insist that current and future cannabis policies acknowledge and repair the inequities of past cannabis policies.