In a tiny North African taco joint not far from USC, where pasted dollar bills and community tagging adorn the walls of the modest, bohemian nook, a group of L.A. do-gooders gathered for a pop-up shop and conversation about social justice in the cannabis space.

As locals chowed down on tagine tacos and visitors picked up T-shirts and signed petitions, the pop-up was more than just a cute display — it was a refreshing reminder of the cannabis industry's origin in grassroots activism.

In an era of legal weed, it's easy to get carried away in the glitz of the green rush, high-end pot-infused dinners, networking conferences in ritzy hotels and cannabis industry parties that rival even the chicest Hollywood affairs. While all that reflects California's projected $7 billion pot economy, it also offers quite a contrast to the realities of communities and incarcerated individuals still reeling from the War on Drugs.

Cage-Free Cannabis pop-up at Revolutionario North African Tacos; Credit: Madison Margolin

Cage-Free Cannabis pop-up at Revolutionario North African Tacos; Credit: Madison Margolin

The hook for the pop-up, hosted by Cage-Free Cannabis at Revolutionario North African Tacos, as the joint is so aptly named, was to raise money to bail out imprisoned dads in time for Father's Day. At the same time, Cage-Free Cannabis sparked a conversation about what the arrival of legal adult-use marijuana means for Los Angeles, and where equity and justice fit into that. “We're focused on directing profits from the cannabis industry back into communities of color that have been impacted by the War on Drugs for decades,” says Adam Vine, co-founder of Cage-Free Cannabis.

As Proposition 64, California's legalization measure, was written, policy analysts projected that some $50 million over five years (a portion of the state's tax revenue and savings from legal weed) would go to support communities most devastated by the War on Drugs.

But Vine argues that's not enough. Dispensary chain MedMen, for instance, is valued at $1.6 billion, he points out. “That $50 million doesn't look so big anymore if you compare it to the rest of the cannabis industry,” Vine says. “The community reinvestment money should be proportional to the size of the industry.”

Vine suggests that weed money should bankroll programs to support social equity in cannabis and to provide jobs, health care, mental health care, legal care, re-entry care, housing and educational scholarships to individuals and marginalized communities. “When we talk about need, we can begin by looking at what the Drug War took away,” he says. “Obviously people lost their lives, they lost their liberty and they lost money to that process, and with the collateral consequences of convictions, they've lost housing, jobs and access to education. They've been traumatized.”

Cage-Free Cannabis pop-up at Revolutionario North African Tacos; Credit: Madison Margolin

Cage-Free Cannabis pop-up at Revolutionario North African Tacos; Credit: Madison Margolin

This is about changing the conversation around cannabis itself, looking at the plant not only as a business venture and moneymaker but also as a tool for reparation. “I look at this as radical reparative justice,” says Felicia Carbajal, co-founder of California Cannabis Advocates. Part of the cannabis social justice initiative, beyond community reinvestment, is helping to get those incarcerated for cannabis crimes back into the community — that means supporting or volunteering at record expungement clinics, helping people rebuild their lives, and maybe even help them get in on the green rush.

“We need the industry to actively care about this component, past just treating [cannabis] like the commodity she's become,” Carbajal says. “This is an amazing opportunity for the city of Los Angeles to shine, to show the rest of the country and the world that our values are simple: that we actually care about people, and that we want to create a space that is unique and representative of a city that has so many different cultures.”

That also means garnering support for the cannabis movement among demographics who may ordinarily be wary. “We're talking about two and three generations of Latino mothers' hearts,” Carbajal says. “Once you rip people from their homes, cage them up [on account of cannabis], it becomes scary. The industry is suffering in terms of not having the kind of acceptance they want from the Latino community in particular.” And nearly half of L.A.'s population is Latino.

To move the needle in terms of tangible social justice policy change to ensure the criminal justice system ruins fewer lives than it does already, bills such as AB 1793 and the Reform L.A. Jails and Community Reinvestment Initiative could make dents in the system that so many cannabis and drug offenders have gotten caught in.

The latter initiative aims to provide the necessary tools to the L.A. County Sheriff's Department Civilian Oversight Commission to investigate misconduct, exercise subpoena power and develop a public safety reinvestment plan and feasibility study to reduce jail populations and redirect savings toward incarceration alternatives. “This is a nonpartisan issue that all the residents of L.A. should be concerned about,” says Jasmyne Cannick, campaign director. “Everyone has a stake in reforming the criminal justice system here in L.A. County.”

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