Oakland Wants Pot Felons Selling Legal Weed

Oakland’s doing something shocking for an American city. It’s trying to be fair to victims of the drug war. And it’s doing so by encouraging them to sell drugs.

The Northern California city is reserving half of the city’s weed dispensary permits for pot crime convicts and people living in neighborhoods known for harsh anti-drug police action.

Decades of “just say no” has demonized cannabis. Encouraging former convicts to rebuild their lives by selling it seems antithetical to American values. But if it works, it would be a huge leap forward for racial justice.

People of color make up a majority of drug crime convicts and nonetheless have been left out of the developing industry of legal marijuana. White people have been profiting on legal weed while black people have been unable to do so from prison. Oakland’s Equity Permit Program was envisioned as a way to close that racial gap.

Some, like Dr. Dale Gieringer, director of weed legalization advocacy group CA NORML, are not sure it’s the weed industry who should be solving this inequality.

“It wasn’t the industry that created or supported these laws,” he says, “but law enforcement and the political establishment.”

Gieringer worries about the heavy regulation of the marijuana industry overall, compared to other industries. For example, California agriculture laws regulate marijuana crops more than almonds, which take up an obscene amount of water. “Why should this be any different?”

But he admits the program has potential to help minorities affected by harsh drug laws.

The East Bay Times reports the program could close some dispensaries operating in the Bay area. It requires licensees to have lived in the area for at least three years. Sascha Stallworth, for example, moved her business, Kamala Cannabis Edibles, to Oakland last year and fears she won’t be able to get a permit.

Nevertheless, the program has enthusiastic support from activists such as Carroll Fife, who told the paper “this is about the liberation of our people. Black folks built this city. We demand a right and a part of this industry.”

Juell Stewart, an urban planner in Oakland, called the program “reparations” for people of color disproportionately punished under anti-drug laws.

Political changes that reverse decades of policies often involves some sacrifice. While this program may not benefit all weed entrepreneurs, in the long term it could help solve the social inequalities of the industry.

Gieringer would like to see the program work, but he’s hedging his bets.

“Hopefully,” he says. “We’ll see.”