With cannabis prohibition overturned and marijuana legalized for both recreational and medicinal use, there are a number of lingering questions that must and must be asked.
What do we do with the brother on the corner – let’s call him Pookie – who we used to patronize for our marijuana purchases?
Will we once again exclude people on the basis of criminal convictions, knowing that this will seriously affect some disadvantaged communities and benefit others?
Will Californians quietly capitulate again to the practice of structural discrimination and racism?
Should we turn a blind eye to the rise of a multibillion-dollar legal marijuana industry fueled for generations in the underground economy?
Will Californians pretend that black people in particular and people of color in general have not been disproportionately stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, imprisoned and imprisoned in the name of a drug war?
In America, the front lines of the drug war were mostly in communities of color. Despite similar usage and sales rates, black people in America are 10 times more likely to go to jail for marijuana offenses than whites.
For the drug war in black communities to be so vigorous, we didn’t just have to label the various illegal substances as dangerous. We also had to label the people who sold them as dangerous.
I can’t help but wonder what happened to the Prohibition-era bootleggers when we decided to reintroduce the sale and distribution of alcohol. More importantly, what happened to those merchants engaged in the distribution of alcohol in marginalized communities? There are no shortages of liquor stores in our ghettos, but do we have them?
A more recent look at history, in relation to the running of numbers – what we know today as ‘the lottery’ – could be more instructive. We once called this practice illegal gambling and called both it and the people involved dangerous—until we decided it was only appropriate that such activities could fund our public schools.
However, we have not once considered what could happen to those people who had jobs as number runners. They did not suddenly become involved in the distribution of lottery tickets. What happened to all those dangerous people?
California is on the brink of another gold rush and we have a little while to get it right. The marijuana ban will end regardless of existing structural discrimination based on race, gender and economics. If so, how can we ensure that economically marginalized communities have a share of the profits?
We need to keep Pookie from being thrown under the bus over and over, historically.
A few simple guidelines for all initiators and financiers out there: don’t make licensing costs too high, don’t exclude people with criminal records from licensing, provide access to capital for low-income entrepreneurs.
Allocate revenue to the communities most affected by the drug war, and roll back criminal penalties for marijuana both prospectively and retroactively.
I ask all people waiting to legally hit the joint to consider all the social and economic implications of how we bring this illegal market into the light of society.
Dorsey Nunn is Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.