Samples of some of the marijuana available for sale at SPARC, a cannabis dispensary in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, April 14, 2015. The club will be one of the suppliers to on-demand marijuana delivery startups. Photo: Sarah Rice, Special To The Chronicle
Sep 22, 2015
San Francisco Chronicle - A bill that would legitimize the state’s billion-dollar medical marijuana industry could also exclude many Californians from the lucrative industry: those convicted of drug crimes.
Given the way that drug crimes have been prosecuted in California, a disproportionate number of the people who might be frozen out are African American or Latino. And many dispensary owners and pot growers who are leaders in the booming business could face a similar hurdle.
It’s one of the most vexing questions that California must reconcile as the marijuana industry comes above ground: how to treat those who were punished when weed was illegal.
The language in the legislation, expected to be signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, is fuzzy. It’s a product of last-minute negotiation and compromise as legislators raced to pass it before Friday’s legislative deadline. The law enforcement lobby — whose support was crucial in passing the trio of measures before Brown — was adamant that the measure keep bad actors from being able to sell weed legally.
“We need to make sure that we won’t have people in the industry that don’t have other problems,” said Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale (Los Angeles County), a 28-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol involved in crafting the bills.
The key phrase here is “may deny” — a clause that leaves activists worried past drug felons will be left out of the new weed order. With few prospects of other employment and a potential ban from the legal pot market, felons may choose to sell it illegally, activists say.
“I don’t think it will create a level playing field,” said California State NAACP president Alice Huffman, who lost her fight to make the bill more inclusive to those convicted of low-level drug crimes. “There’s going to be a hole in our community
. You can’t look away from that.”
“People who have been subjected to disparate law enforcement will continue to be discriminated against. You’re piling injustice on top of injustice,” DeAngelo said. “If we don’t create opportunity for them in the legal cannabis industry, they will continue to participate in the illicit cannabis industry.”
In 2014, felony marijuana arrestees in California were 31 percent white, 39.5 percent Hispanic, 18.5 percent African American and 11 percent of some other demographic, according to the ACLU. Nearly 70 percent of adults arrested for pot charges resulted in conviction.
And with the state recording more than 198,000 felony marijuana arrests since 2000, according to California chapter of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, many who have been tried, convicted and rehabilitated for their underground weed crimes face a potential ban. If rejected by the new state regulators, applicants can appeal the decision.
Huffman isn’t optimistic the system will benefit black and Latino felons.
“If we leave anything up to some bureaucrat, people of color will not get equal treatment. We’re always getting pushed to the back of the line,” Huffman said Wednesday. “That could be my bias. I could be proven wrong. But if you look at history, it holds up.”
Among those past drug felons who might face scrutiny from the state is DeAngelo, who was convicted of a marijuana felony in Maryland in 2001. But after nine years at the helm of Harborside, the cannabis thought leader has a better shot of being cleared by the state than others without his pedigree.
DeAngelo expects some of the more liberal sponsors of the medical marijuana legislation to try to fix this problem in the next legislative session. Huffman doubts that will happen without support from law enforcement agencies
. Instead, she will look to include that provision in one of the initiatives to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana that is expected to go before California voters in 2016.
“People are saying, ‘We’ll fix it, we’ll fix it.’ But how many times have we heard that,” Huffman said. “The ballot is our best chance.”