People of color have always been the primary targets for drug enforcement. But after decades of policies that were intended to ravage communities of color, many state and congressional lawmakers have been perfectly content with race-neutral marijuana legalization laws. While these bills are often sold as racial justice breakthroughs, most of the benefits of legal weed have flowed to white entrepreneurs, say both advocates and foes of legalization.
Jason Ortiz, a longtime proponent for legalization, concedes that many legalization efforts have failed to sufficiently addressed the historic harm caused by cannabis prohibition. He points to Ohio’s failed voter initiative. The referendum would have legalized recreational weed use, but would have also handed the industry over to 10 groups of mostly white investors. Ohio voters soundly defeated the referendum and Ortiz thinks the potential monopoly was the culprit.
“Ohio failed the way it did because it was the first bill that the movement came out against,” Ortiz says. “We had to really decide are we willing to accept any kind of legalization in order to get people out of prison or are we going to have some standards.” In the wake of the Ohio vote, Ortiz got talking with Shaleen Title, who would later be appointed to a seat on the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, where she was the primary architect of that state’s equity provisions.
Ortiz asked Title, a lawyer, what was the opposite of Ohio, to identify a state that had created a grassroots industry. The answer: none. So Title and Ortiz got to working on a piece of model legislation. Through the non-profit Minority Cannabis Business Association, the two worked with people of color from around the country to create a bill they hoped could make right decades of disproportionate drug enforcement. A big part of the model legislation is eliminating barriers to entry like high application fees and caps on licenses. In most states, investors have to compete for a limited number of licenses. “When a state says we’re only going to issue 10 licenses, it becomes a matter of who can best lobby to get the most legislators on their side. These licenses end up going to the 10 wealthiest people,” Ortiz says. “If you don’t have a cap, it’s simply based on whether you follow the rules and are able to start a business.”
Many of the model bill’s provisions are already a reality in Oakland, California. In Oakland, longtime residents of the police districts where the War on Drugs raged the hardest qualify for the city’s equity program. Oakland’s program has been hailed as a model for racial reconciliation, but Amber Senter—co-founder of Oakland-based Supernova Women, a group of women that use education, advocacy, and networking to empower people of color to enter the cannabis industry—isn’t quite ready to declare victory just yet.