Until US Attorney Melinda Haag launched her much-criticized crackdown on Oakland's medical marijuana dispensaries last year, the city was held up as a beacon of level-headed tolerance toward cannabis in the pot-friendly Bay Area. And even when the statewide campaign to legalize pot for recreational use failed in 2010, city officials were still among the most outspoken in California for large-scale medical pot cultivation. Casual weed smokers have also found Oakland to be a welcoming place: The successful 2004 ballot initiative Measure Z made adult recreational use of marijuana the lowest law-enforcement priority for the Oakland Police Department.
However, a report released last week by the city commission that monitors OPD's compliance with Measure Z includes troubling findings about the racial composition of Oaklanders arrested for marijuana-related crimes. According to the Cannabis Regulatory Commission's biennial report, roughly 20 percent of Oakland's narcotics arrests in 2011 were for marijuana offenses — and nearly 90 percent of arrestees were black or Latino.
"In a city as diverse as Oakland, the committee needs to take to heart that the vast majority of marijuana offenses are being enforced against minorities," said Sierra Martinez, an environmental attorney who has been a member of the Oakland Cannabis Regulatory Commission since 2011. "There is a history of the Drug War being enforced against low-income communities and communities of color, and this is recent evidence of that reality."
Nationally, marijuana use is more prevalent among whites than blacks or Latinos, yet people of color are arrested far more frequently for cannabis use. And even though more and more states are legalizing medical marijuana — and in the cases of Colorado and Washington, recreational adult use of pot — someone is arrested for pot-related offenses in the country every 42 seconds, according to an FBI report issued last fall.
Of the 452 people arrested for marijuana offenses in 2011 in Oakland, 74.5 percent were African American, 13 percent were Latino, 5 percent were white, 3.7 percent were Asian American, and 0.4 percent were Native American. According to 2010 census data, Oakland's population is 28.0 percent black, 25.9 percent white, and 25.4 percent Latino.
The 452 arrests in 2011, however, represented a significant drop from 711 arrests in 2010 and 736 arrests in 2009. The lion's share of arrests in each year was for possession of marijuana for sale — 275 in 2011, 517 in 2010, and 571 in 2009. The arrest data was provided to the commission by Oakland Lieutenant Michael Poirier.
However, the commission's report noted that OPD's dramatic reduction in staffing, Oakland's spiking violent crime rate, and the passage of SB 1449, which decriminalized the possession of less than an ounce of cannabis in California as of January 1, 2011, as other potential reasons for the numerical drop in arrests.
Michael Wilson of the Alameda County Public Defender's office told the Cannabis Regulatory Commission in October 2012 that his office rarely sees marijuana-related offenses. The few cases the Public Defender's Office does deal with, Wilson told the commission, "often have several other factors involved," and marijuana use in public spaces such as a street corner or in a vehicle often provides officers with probable cause to further engage or search that individual.
Anecdotal evidence over the years indicates that OPD officers have used marijuana offenses as a form of leverage to bring charges against suspected gang members, either through criminal court or the mechanisms of parole or probation violations. Court documents from the city's gang injunctions in North Oakland and the Fruitvale district showed that several of the defendants in both cases, including Abel Manzo, one of the main defendants who contested his gang status in front of Alameda County Superior Judge Robert Freedman in 2011, were contacted initially by OPD for marijuana-related crimes.
"If we detain somebody, they have numerous baggies of weed on them, they're on probation for selling weed, we don't consider that a medical cannabis offense and they'll go to jail," Assistant Police Chief Anthony Toribio told the city council Public Safety Committee on February 26.
OPD also has to contend with numerous illegal large-scale grow operations in the city. Several grow operations are discovered each year, and some involve heavily armed individuals with links to larger criminal organizations. In late April of last year, OPD arrested eleven people in a raid on a fortified East Oakland warehouse. Officers seized 2,500 marijuana plants, 50 pounds of dried pot, $40,000 in cash, 7 firearms, and body armor from a building that had interior doors that were reinforced with steel.
Still, Martinez and other members of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission believe OPD is still overly concerned with a substance that Oaklanders have made clear is not a threat. Martinez noted that 20 percent of all narcotics arrests in recent years have been cannabis-related. "At a time when violent crime in on the rise, it's a waste of resources to be enforcing the marijuana offenses," he said.
The cannabis commission also recommended that the city council modify its anti-smoking ordinance to let property owners allow pot smoking "in designated rooms of hotels, restaurants, clubs, cannabis dispensaries, and other facilities, so long as they are properly ventilated and do not pose objectionable odor hazards to neighbors." Commission members have noted that there is no evidence that smoking marijuana causes cancer or emphysema, nor is there evidence of harm from second-hand smoke.