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Will Oakland's Legal Weed Industry Leave People of Color Behind?

In the wake of the War on Drugs, state laws and industry culture are preventing Black and Latino folks from entering Oakland's burgeoning, hugely profitable cannabis market.

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The state's more conservative stance on felony drug convictions reflects the US Department of Justice's eight guidelines for state regulation of medical marijuana. These official guidelines stipulate that states are responsible for preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used a pretext for trafficking other drugs, as well as preventing revenue from state-regulated marijuana sales from going to criminal enterprises. But when applied on a practical level, this policy is contradictory because it denies people the right to sell marijuana legally simply because they've sold marijuana before it was legalized. And this policy implies that people who have been involved in marijuana sales are involved in other criminal activity, which is not always the case.

If state licensing agencies fail to take into consideration the details of the felony conviction, how long ago it was, and what the person has done since then to rehabilitate him or herself, then the implementation of MMRSA could bar a significant number of people who were unfairly targeted during the War on Drugs — many of them Black and Latino — from operating cannabis businesses legally, according to advocates. If that were to happen, the distribution of wealth from Oakland's cannabis industry would not be equitable. "You basically will see communities that haven't been as impacted by prohibition gaining the most from legalization," Richardson said.

Because landlords and employers can still use felony convictions to discriminate against people for jobs and housing and, until recently, drug-related felonies barred many Californians from receiving food stamps and cash assistance, Prop 47 represented a crucial step in helping perpetrators of victimless crimes move on from their pasts. But in terms of making the medical marijuana industry more equitable, Richardson said it hasn't gone far enough.

"There are still a lot of drug-related crimes that are still felonies," said Richardson. "Possession with intent to sell is still a felony, and that can be charged just based on the amount of drugs you had, whether you had paraphernalia on you, or whether the drugs you had were separated into separate baggies rather than having one baggy, or if the officer just felt like you were gonna sell them."

Richardson added that the state's medical cannabis industry will continue to remain segregated until there are no barriers to licensing for people with felony convictions. "I think that's the most important thing that can even the playing field a little bit more."

Felicia Shaw, who owns the topicals company Mystic Herbal Body Care and is an instructor of topical applications at Oaksterdam University, echoed Richardson's sentiments in a recent phone interview. Shaw, who is Black, began as an underground marijuana grower before transitioning into making cannabis-infused topicals for pain relief, which she now sells at dozens of cannabis clubs throughout the Bay Area. Though her business complies with state and local laws, she said that, given the history of criminalization of Black and Latino people for drug possession, she understands why cannabis entrepreneurs of color would not feel comfortable coming forward to apply for licenses, let alone lobbying local and state governments for more equitable policies.

"I'm sure you know Black people and Mexican people have been the ones being arrested and have served the most harsh time for selling weed over the years," she said. "So you would think, 'Wow, this is an opportunity we would all jump on.' But it's actually the opposite because we get targeted [by the police] a lot more for pull-overs and stuff like that."

Shaw also said that many Black and Latino marijuana business operators are afraid to expose themselves to local and state licensing authorities because of the drug war's impact on their communities. "Why would we want to come out of the darkness and into the light where we can get even more picked on?"

She continued, "Because people of color are usually targeted by police, I keep [my business] low-key. I make enough money so that I can pay my bills and enjoy my life and still be free."

Claudia Mercado, an Oakland entrepreneur who was born in Mexico and raised in Oakland's Fruitvale district, said in an interview that many Latinos with working-class backgrounds similar to hers have justifiable fears about entering the legal cannabis business.

"If you think about the black market in East Oakland, it's going to be hard for people to come out because there's a cost to going legit," she said. "And if you've been making decent money to get by on the black market, why do you wanna go legit, what's the incentive? If you've been persecuted for so long, what is going to give you the confidence to step out? Who's going to guarantee you're not going to get busted, and that you're gonna be okay if you've lived your life in fight or flight mode?"

Mercado has an MBA degree from Mills College and has built her business acumen working in corporate America. She said this has helped her navigate the legal gray areas of the medical marijuana business. She now works in marketing and business development for the topicals company Sweet Releaf, and she recently incorporated a patients' collective with another colleague in San Francisco to help her legitimize her grow operation.

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