Will Marijuana Legalization Benefit People of Color?

Will Marijuana Legalization Benefit People of Color?
Illustration by Darrick Rainey

That story about Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and his men bringing marijuana across the border for the first time in the 1910s and inspiring racist American prohibition against the drug? It's a riveting tale, often retold by organizers who favor decriminalization. It symbolizes the United States' history of using drug laws to imprison and subjugate minorities. But University of Cincinnati history professor Isaac Campos, author of Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico's War on Drugs, says the story's a myth, likely created by a misinterpretation of "La Cucaracha," sung by revolutionaries not as an ode to marijuana but as propaganda against archnemesis Victoriano Huerta, an alleged toker and the anthropomorphized cockroach in the song who can't walk because it's lacking marihuana que fumar — marijuana to smoke. "The pro-marijuana literature has tried to suggest Villa's soldiers were heroic and smoked marijuana," Campos says. "But they were singing to smear an opponent."

While American pop culture sometimes imagines a direct line from Villa's men to Cheech and Chong, Mexicans generally loathe cannabis. "The marijuano Mexicano is another trophy in the trophy case of Mexican stereotypes," says San Diego State University literature professor William A. Nericcio, author of Tex[t]-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the "Mexican" in America.

The Spanish began trading for Central Asian marijuana in the 1500s and brought it to Mexico during the occupation. The first reference to its use in Mexico dates to the 1770s, when some indigenous people used it in a liquid elixir to help them get closer to their deity, Campos says. Seeing this, Spanish rulers banned the drug, and ever since, it's been viewed in Mexico as a narcotic tool of the lowest classes.

Contrary to the stereotype of the Chicano stoner, Mexicans have such distaste for cannabis that it has seeped into contemporary politics, as opposing sides of marijuana legalization in California are trying to sway Latinos, the state's largest ethnic or racial group.

Opponents of California's Proposition 64 — which would legalize possession of up to an ounce of weed for anyone over the age of 21 — point to polling that shows comparatively weak support for legitimizing pot among likely Latino voters. It was only last year that the Public Policy Institute of California said a slight majority of Latinos in the state was opposed to sanctioning recreational weed.

In 2014, 70 percent of marijuana-related arrests in California involved people of color, according to state Department of Justice data. At the same time, medical marijuana legalization, which was launched in California in 1996 under voter-approved Proposition 215, hasn't exactly diversified the pot business, even as it made many dispensary owners into millionaires. A representative of United Cannabis Business Alliance (UCBA), a group composed of owners of some of the quasi-legal pot shops in the city of Los Angeles, says its membership is about one-third minority. The city recognizes limited legal immunity for 135 or fewer dispensaries in town.

The Yes on 64 campaign says the measure would keep minorities out of prison and even provide business opportunities — a result of what some predict will be a post-legalization "green rush" — of the kind seen after legit sales began in Colorado in 2014. According to estimates from New Frontier Data and ArcView Market Research, if 64 passes, the pie could be worth $6.6 billion in the Golden State by 2020.

Of course, people of color want a slice. But opponents say medical marijuana hasn't been good to the state's barrios, bringing violent robberies, loitering and that skunky smell to minority neighborhoods while providing little in the way of economic opportunity.

The score will be tallied Nov. 8 for Proposition 64 and March 7 for UCBA's Los Angeles Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, which would license pot shops and possibly expand the number of cannabis businesses in the city, providing opportunities to minority entrepreneurs who want in on the green rush, backers say. For each of those measures, statewide and local, there are opponents who say more marijuana is bad for minorities.

State Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, who represents a core swath of South L.A., photographed at Exposition Park: "There's been a war on people of color when it comes to cannabis."
State Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, who represents a core swath of South L.A., photographed at Exposition Park: "There's been a war on people of color when it comes to cannabis."
Shane Lopes

"Minority kids are still getting arrested in Colorado" after legalization there, says political consultant Andrew Acosta, speaking for the No on Proposition 64 campaign. "Crime has not gone away there. Who's making money? It's tough to know." Backers of 64, he says, are "not here for social justice. They're here to make money."

Even some marijuana proponents aren't so sure about 64. Yami Bolanos, a longtime dispensary operator and founder of the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance, says California should hold off on recreational weed until medical marijuana regulations are ironed out. Indeed, it took nearly 20 years for the state to enact legislation, known most commonly as the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA), to create an agency to oversee dispensaries, cultivators and producers starting in 2018. Proposition 64 would largely ride on the coattails of MMRSA's regulatory system, which requires state and local licenses for pot businesses.

"I'm not exactly jumping for joy with 64," Bolanos says. "I believe it's too soon. I think we need to fix medical first."

Bonita "Bo" Money, the California creator of That Glass Jar, a cannabis-infused topical product, says the financial barriers, including the costs of licensing, in the legal pot business have her wary about how recreational cannabis would benefit minorities like her. Nonetheless, she's created a group, Women Abuv Ground, to educate would-be cannabis entrepreneurs of color.

"We've decriminalized marijuana, and we've legalized medical marijuana, now what?" Money says. "Now it's 10 times more expensive to get in the business. Ultimately, it's going to take all of us working together, igniting our community to move toward creating a situation where we're not just consumers but business owners. That's what I really want to see."

Opponents say that Proposition 64 is a gateway drug for rich guys like its main financial backer, Facebook co-founder Sean Parker, who has so far sunk more than $7 million into its passage. That's hard to prove. The initiative would restrict "large producers from vertically integrating with each other," according to the campaign, and it would limit the size of growing operations for five years after the law goes into effect. But it would ultimately allow for larger operations, and that's the point, No on 64's Acosta argues. "Their goal is to sell more marijuana products," he says.

Some leaders on the neighborhood level, the source of so much political power in Los Angeles, are wary, too. Dispensaries in traditionally minority communities, such as Boyle Heights, have sometimes brought with them crime and shady customers. While statistics show that crime has not increased around pot shops, there is anecdotal evidence to show that they have attracted violent robbers, who shoot first and ask questions later. The attraction is drugs and cash. "I absolutely know firsthand that it's a bad thing for the community, especially our young people," says Margarita "Mago" Amador, member of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council. There's an expectation among critics that 64 will increase demand, open the door to new businesses and possibly bring some of the same problems associated with medical pot. Already, there has been concern that illegal dispensaries are spreading in South Los Angeles.

Carlos de la Torre, co-owner of Eagle Rock's Cornerstone Research Collective and a supporter of recreational legalization, says, "The barbarians are at the gate. Everyone wants to get involved in this industry. And there are groups who want to use any excuse to preach to the voters." Even so, De la Torre is in favor of 64 "so people of color are not so disproportionately arrested and imprisoned. I'm 100 percent behind that.

"I would definitely like to see more African-Americans and Hispanics in this industry," he says.

Earlier this month, a rainbow coalition of Proposition 64 supporters and dignitaries gathered downtown at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes to tout the measure as a game changer for California's people of color. Not only would legalization keep African-Americans and Latinos out of prison but it also would open the door to minorities who want in on legalization's profits.

Towering above the high-profile supporters at the rally was Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, an early front-runner in the 2018 race to take the governor's mansion. Newsom is practically the architect of recreational legalization. His Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy found in a report last year that "racial disparities in law enforcement have detrimentally impacted minority communities." It laid the groundwork for Proposition 64 and its tightrope walk between law and order (toking in public would continue to be illegal) and decriminalization. Newsom told a room full of spectators, mostly press and pro-pot organizers, at LA Plaza that half the people on the commission were opposed to legalization but agreed to give input because they were attracted to the greater goals of ending disproportionate arrests and imprisonment for minority cannabis users. "The folks that are being arrested don't look like me," he said.

When L.A. Weekly asked Newsom what's in this for minorities, he said, "The spirit of the initiative is to right those wrongs." He also said job training and small business loans funded under 64's taxes, including 15 percent at the cash register, would bring minority masses into the legit pot business, where they could realize "pots of gold."

Later, a spokesman for Yes on 64 clarified to L.A. Weekly that benefits for minorities would mostly include decriminalization and job training. There's no mention of loans in the language of the measure. Sixty percent of the $1 billion in annual tax revenue expected to be generated by Proposition 64 if it passes would be earmarked for "substance use disorder education, prevention and treatment," according to the California Legislative Analyst's Office. Twenty percent would be used to clean up any environmental damage caused by pot cultivation. Another 20 percent would fund programs to reduce stoned driving and to mitigate "negative impacts on public health or safety" caused by legalization, the LAO's office states.

State Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, who represents a core swath of South L.A., was at the LA Plaza event. "There's been a war on people of color when it comes to cannabis," he told the room.

Later he said that legalization also could spur an entrepreneurial renaissance in communities like the ones he represents. "I'm hoping that once cannabis is legalized and we start to remove the stigma, local governments will start to loosen their rules and understand that this could be a large economic boon for their area and help reduce unemployment."

Any green rush brought on by masses looking to buy weed without the help of a doctor could indeed create a bottleneck at the local level. Proposition 64 allows cities and counties to continue to outlaw marijuana retailing, even as it says adults can grow six plants at home. Local control is a "fundamental right," Newsom said.

Experts have said demand could grow multiple times above the current levels at the city's quasi-legal pot shops if 64 passes. That leaves supporters on all sides of the issue a little uneasy. In 2013, city voters passed Proposition D, which provides limited legal immunity for 135 or fewer dispensaries that have been compliant with certain city paperwork since 2007. Those limited legal immunity shops fear a tidal wave of new, illegal retailers should the measure pass.

The city's Proposition D shops have mostly run under two umbrellas, the UCBA's and GLACA's. The UCBA's Los Angeles Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act would allow the City Council to expand the number of pot shops in town and even possibly legalize delivery by "brick-and-mortar" collectives. Another proposal, being pushed by GLACA at City Hall, would be more expansive in opening licensing to new shops. Thus, says GLACA's Bolanos, it would be more inclusive for minorities. It "opens up the industry to everybody," she says. If 64 passes, those 135 limited legal immunity dispensaries are in prime position to switch to recreational sales.

Licensing will be required for shops by 2018, when the new regulations (MMRSA) signed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown kick in. So far City Hall doesn't do pot shop licenses. Sawyer-Jones wrote a bill that would have let L.A. continue its limited legal immunity system without licenses, but Brown vetoed it, saying that it was "inconsistent with the dual licensing requirement established last year."

Newsom's "pots of gold" and small business loans for people of color, then, could end up being mirages. But social justice brought on by decriminalization has been real. After then–Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that made holding an ounce or less of weed merely a ticket-worthy offense, misdemeanor pot arrests plummeted 86 percent in 2012, according to a Drug Policy Alliance report unveiled last summer. Still, the DPA analysis found, African-Americans in California last year were arrested for marijuana-related crimes at 3½ times the rate of white people; Latino pot suspects were arrested 35 percent more often. Under 64, anyone 21 and older caught with an ounce or less of weed wouldn't even get that ticket anymore. They'd just walk. At least in theory.

The recreational initiative would allow people with pot felonies on their records to get into the legitimate weed business and get those convictions wiped from their records. Selling pot without a license would make convicts eligible for six months in jail instead of the current four years in prison. And it would erase two years' worth of convictions for marijuana-related violations. Those behind bars today could have their sentences reduced, too.

There's another reason, besides just right and wrong, why minorities have become so important to legalization proponents. The rise of Latino legislators and the statewide demise of the Republican Party following 1994's Proposition 187, which would have required citizenship screening at public schools, shows just how crucial the blessing of Latino voters can be in California.

Armando Gudino, state policy manager for Drug Policy Action, the campaign arm of Drug Policy Alliance
Armando Gudino, state policy manager for Drug Policy Action, the campaign arm of Drug Policy Alliance
Shane Lopes

Armando Gudino, state policy manager for Drug Policy Action, the campaign arm of Drug Policy Alliance, says that in the days to come, the group would embark upon a "concerted push" for 64 in Latino communities. So far nearly $20 million has been raised in the name of legalization this November, according to the California Secretary of State. Opponents, endorsed by law enforcement lobbyists such as the California Police Chiefs Association, have raised less than $2.5 million. Both are fighting for minorities, particularly Latinos, as a possibly deciding vote. A Pew Research Center survey earlier this month found that Latino adults nationwide want to keep pot illegal at a rate of 49 percent versus 46 percent in favor of legalization.

"Minority kids are still getting arrested" following the legalization of medical marijuana, Acosta of No on 64 says. "Crime has not gone away. Arrests have not gone away. I'm not sure 64 addresses those things. And the community activists say dispensaries end up in areas that are lower-income."

Proponents of 64 say they're also betting on brown. While they recognize the traditional conservatism of Mexican immigrants who recoil at the smell of weed, they also argue that the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have energized voter registrations among younger Latinos, who are more likely to say yes to legalization (and no to Trump). Fifty-four percent of likely Latino voters would affirm 64, according to a Public Policy Institute of California survey released last month. That compares with 60 percent approval for all likely voters. "The differentiating characteristic is that you will see more millennials and under-40 Latinos turn out, which speaks well for a yes vote," Yes on 64 spokesman Michael Bustamante told L.A. Weekly in July.

Larry Banegas, a Kumeyaay Native American who has a healing center on the Barona Indian Reservation in San Diego County, subscribes to the legend that marijuana was brought across the border by misfits and shamans. He says it's time California's people of color get a piece of the green rush they helped to create.

"We were the outlaws who brought all these drugs in," Banegas says. "We were colonized and we had to put up with repression and racism. We started a casino almost 15 years ago. It's been a gold mine. The principals are the same for marijuana. Cannabis is a vehicle that can make many things happen for the good. We all know there's a lot of money in it."

[Note: The captions on the photos of Armando Gudino and Reggie Jones-Sawyer were inadvertently reversed when this story was originally posted. We regret the error.]


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