The city of Oakland has ramped up its counterattack to the U.S. war on drugs, expanding its one-of-a-kind program to help people jailed for marijuana crimes enter the booming California cannabis industry.
But while the new cannabis laws are breaking down industry barriers for some longtime residents, business owners and those new to Oakland say the changes have moved the needle too far in the other direction and they are being pushed out of the pot bonanza.
Newly released city data shows over the past two decades African Americans have been arrested for pot at a disproportionate rate compared to white residents, even though the two groups make up a similar percentage of the population.
The analysis of data between 1995 and 2015 found high drug arrests in the city’s flatlands even as the medical marijuana boom arrived in Oakland.
With those stats from the City of Oakland Race and Equity department in hand, the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to overhaul the nation’s first equity program to set aside 50 percent of medical marijuana and cannabis business permits during the first phase of permitting for people affected by the War on Drugs. The council vote was taken around midnight after three hours of public comment and debate.
The revised program builds on laws passed in May that began a tug-of-war among council members divided on the details. A number of amendments to the laws were rejected by Councilwoman Desley Brooks, who represents a portion of East Oakland and spearheaded the equity program to make sure Oakland residents have more control and access to an industry that has been dominated by whites, some of whom are new residents.
Most of the public speakers spoke in support of the laws.
“This is about the liberation of our people,” said activist Carroll Fife. “Black folks built this city. We demand a right and a part of this industry.”
Major changes approved Tuesday redefine who is eligible for an equity permit. 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.
In May, those beats only included a handful in East Oakland but have now been expanded to areas of West Oakland, Fruitvale and other parts of East Oakland, all in the city’s flatlands. The 21 police beats were chosen because they had about 150 or more marijuana arrests over the past 20 years.
Data shows the disparities. In 2015, the cannabis arrest rates for African Americans was 77 percent, 15 percent for Hispanics, 4 percent for whites and 2 percent for Asians, according to the city’s report. African Americans, Hispanics and whites each make up about 30 percent of Oakland’s population.
The arrest rate for African Americans peaked in 1998, when it was as high as 90 percent, City of Oakland Race and Equity Director Darlene Flynn said.
“The data shows that for over two decades, black and brown residents were arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses at disparately high rates, while largely white cannabis cultivators, manufacturers and distributors who were not operating entirely above board either, flourished under changing laws designed to accommodate the burgeoning industry,” Flynn said.
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.
While most of the 100-plus speakers at Tuesday’s council meeting were in support of the new laws, some fear a late-minute addition could hurt existing businesses. Councilman Noel Gallo, with the support of Brooks, added an amendment requiring general permit applicants to have lived in Oakland for at least three years. Opponents said that could push out existing businesses and endanger funding for the equity program.
Under the ordinance, general permit holders can speed up the process by offering free rent or real estate to an equity applicant.
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.”
Brian Edwards of Swerve Confections said he might move his business out of town because he lives in San Leandro and unless the requirements change he wouldn’t be eligible for a permit.
“We are paying (the cannabis business tax) but because we don’t live in the city the City Council is talking to us like we don’t matter at all,” he said. “They wouldn’t talk to any other business owner like that, they wouldn’t talk to the tech industry like that.”