The One City in America Where Drug War Reparations Are Real

Photo by Vortex Farmacy

In terms of population, Oakland, California, is just about as equal a place as you’ll find in America. Of the roughly 400,000 people who call the “Brooklyn of the San Francisco Bay Area” home, about 34 percent are black, 34 percent are white, 25 percent are Latino and 17 percent are Asian. If you are about to helpfully point out, “Hey, stupid, that’s 110 percent,” let’s pause for a moment while we direct you here, while the rest of us marvel at the amazing equal-parts-each melting pot! What a social experiment.

When arresting Oakland citizens for drug-related crimes, Oakland police, however, have been not so equal.

They’ve been above average—which, in an America where the drug war has seen almost four black people arrested for non-violent marijuana crimes for every white person (despite equal rates of use) is a bad thing.

In 2013, more than 90 percent of the people arrested for cannabis possession, cultivation or sales in Oakland were either black or Latino. As recently as 2015, with the California medical-marijuana industry booming, black people represented 77 percent of pot busts. That’s… better than it was in the late 1990s, when black people were 90 percent of people hauled in for weed, but in no way is it good.

Now that cannabis is a billion-dollar business—with legal sales of marijuana in California projected to hit several billions within the next few years—Oakland is trying to make up for it by ensuring black people can own a piece of that very lucrative market. And Latinos and Asians and white people, too—provided they’ve been popped for pot sometime over the past 20 years.

As the East Bay Times reported, Oakland has a “one-of-a-kind… equity program” that sets aside half of the weed businesses in town to people who were personally arrested or otherwise negatively impacted by the War on Drugs. Sounds… progressive!

But, problem.

Most of the existing weed businesses in town—all of whom will need licenses to stay in business—are currently not owned by black people. For them, Oakland’s effort to make things right goes too far.

As progressive as the Bay Area likes to consider itself—this is the place that deployed fireworks and black-block anarchists to disrupt a stop on Milo Yiannopoulos’s political vanity tour and saw a septuagenarian Trump supporter get pepper-sprayedits local marijuana industry has a long, long way to go toward achieving anything close to racial equity. A good start would be for there to be racial representation, such as any black-owned marijuana dispensaries in San Francisco at all, which there are not.

Beginning in January, all marijuana businesses in California—medical or recreational—will need a state license to stay in business. But to get a state license, you need a local license. Since letting the free market even things out doesn’t appear to work, Oakland is taking the regulation route.

Per the Times:

Besides Oakland residents arrested within the city for pot crimes dating back to 1996, the permits are available to residents living at least 10 of the past 20 years in police beats torn apart by the War on Drugs. Their income must also be below 80 percent of the city’s average median income.

But how can you get a business permit if you can’t get a loan to start a business? Aha! Oakland has you covered.

The city is also earmarking $3.4 million in cannabis business license tax revenue and $200,000 to hire a consultant to offer no-interest loans and other assistance to help equity permit holders open their business.

This is good for Oaklanders—but only old-time Oaklanders. For more than a decade, the city’s notoriously weed-friendly atmosphere has made it a magnet for entrepreneurs from all over the country. The equity program does not help them much at all.

To get a permit of any kind, applicants have to have been in town for at least three years. So even if your business has been in Oakland, but you live in a nearby city, you may be in trouble.

Hark, the lament:

Sascha Stallworth, co-founder of Kamala Cannabis Edibles, moved her family to Oakland from Los Angeles last year and was planning on signing a new building lease next week for her business. Now, she’s not so sure.

“If I end up with a five-year lease in a place I can’t operate out of, that doesn’t work for anyone,” Stallworth said. “This is a break in our road which we didn’t anticipate.”

“They wouldn’t talk to any other business owner like that,” another marijuana business owner huffed. “They wouldn’t talk to the tech industry like that.”

Which: fair enough! Tech has serious racial disparity problems, too—but coding doesn’t quite have the baggage of fueling the prison-industrial complex. The drug war does. Venture capital, however—that’s a different story.

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