As more states legalize marijuana and private companies begin applying for licenses to sell their wares in upscale places like Pasadena, minority leaders are demanding that communities of color share in the wealth of the billion-dollar industry — a once illegal drug turned lucrative product that for years has led to the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans and Latinos.
Earlier this month, Pasadena officials announced the selection of six businesses leading the city into the now legitimate world of selling weed. They are: Integral Associates Dena, Tony Fong, the Atrium Group, Harvest Pasadena, Sweetflower Pasadena and MME Pasadena Retail. The six were top scorers among the applicants in Pasadena and can now begin the process of obtaining permits to sell marijuana in Pasadena.
However, all six owners proposed Old Pasadena locations for their businesses, leading to calls for social equity by activists, who insist that minority communities unfairly impacted by the war on drugs should be able to share in the wealth now that marijuana is legal.
“I appreciate that some members of our community would like to see social equity/community benefits play a larger role in the selection process or perhaps serve as the sole determinate and I have met with several people who hold this view, and I respect their opinions,” City Manager Steve Mermell told the Pasadena Weekly. “Nevertheless, I believe we have struck the right balance for our city through a fair and transparent process.”
Based on public input, the city modified its requirements and included categories on “social equity and community benefits in the application and asked specifically how cannabis owners would ensure that persons most harmed by cannabis criminalization and poverty through a share in the ownership, management, employment or other benefits resulting in high quality, well-paying jobs and/or other benefits,” Mermell said.
According to the applications of the six businesses chosen, only the Atrium Group has a clear social equity plan.
Atrium plans to hold seminars to teach local residents convicted of marijuana crimes how to expunge their records. Further, the group has also partnered with Ideal Youth, and will provide job training for local youth.
“Cannabis criminalization and its enforcement has had a long-term impact on low-income and minority community members in the city of Pasadena and throughout our nation,” said Ismael Trone, head of the nonprofit organization that will work with the Atrium Group. “For the city of Pasadena to incorporate social equity into its application process is a giant step toward repairing the harm caused by the war on drugs and disparate enforcement of cannabis prohibition.”
Integral Associates, the applicant that scored the highest in the city’s process, will form a group led by former City Councilman and current Chamber of Commerce CEO Paul Little. Little told the Pasadena Weekly social equity would be a major part of the group’s focus.
“The idea is to help them negotiate the community and help them with social equity,” Little said. “We will be figuring out how they are going to support the community and how they are going to implement hiring and have as much of an impact on the local community as possible.”
In its application, the company also said it would hire a law firm to ensure that communities hit hardest by the war on drugs would benefit from the company’s presence in Pasadena.
According to a 2009 story by Jake Armstrong appearing in the Pasadena Weekly, between 2004 and 2008 African Americans accounted for more than half of all marijuana arrests in Pasadena — three times the number of whites and almost twice the number of Latinos — though blacks made up only 14 percent of the city’s population.
Black residents were arrested on felony marijuana charges in Pasadena at far higher percentages than any other ethnic group, having been charged with more than half of all felony marijuana arrests since 2004, though nearly 90 percent of the marijuana-related offenses during that period were misdemeanors.
According to recent studies, California arrest rates for marijuana-related crimes have declined dramatically since legalization, but the stark racial disparity remains in place as black people were still three times as likely as whites to be arrested in 2016.
“As white people exploit the changing tide on marijuana, the racism that drove its prohibition is ignored,” Vincent M. Southerland, executive director of NYU Law’s Center on Race, Inequality and the Law, and Johanna B. Steinberg of the Bronx Defenders, recently wrote for The New York Times. “So are the consequences for black communities, where the war on drugs is most heavily waged.”
In March, African-American lawmakers in New York announced they would block a push to legalize recreational marijuana in New York unless people of color were guaranteed a share of the industry. They want to be assured that some of that money will go toward job training programs, and that minority entrepreneurs will receive licenses to cultivate or sell marijuana.
According to Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the first African-American woman to serve as Assembly majority leader in New York, all 10 states that have established laws legalizing cannabis, including California, made the same mistake.
“I haven’t seen anyone do it correctly,” she told The New York Times.
“They thought we were going to trust that at the end of the day, these communities would be invested in. But that’s not something I want to trust,” she continued. “If it’s not required in the statute [in New York], then it won’t happen.”
Trone called on the city to do more.
“Social equity goals should be to promote equitable ownership and employment opportunities in the cannabis industry to decrease disparities in life outcomes for marginalized communities. Ideal Youth research into the career opportunities in the cannabis industry has led the organization to embrace the cannabis industry as a legitimate career path and inform local parents and society as a whole to also embrace the cannabis industry as a career path,” Trone said.
Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco and Long Beach have established social equity cannabis programs.
Last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation — the California Cannabis Equity Act of 2018 — intended to help municipalities increase participation in the programs. Lawmakers have allocated $10 million toward the effort.
“There are so many opportunities in the cannabis industry for young, motivated, bright minds,” Trone said. “It’s a great opportunity for young adults to get into a growing dynamic field and learn so much about so many different industries. Cannabis is a stimulating learning environment because it touches on so many different industries such as legal, political, financial, retail, agricultural, marketing, science, etc. These opportunities provide young people a peek into how these disciplines interact and make cannabis ideal for career growth.”