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California's Racist Cannabis Enforcement

Hakeem Brown is unique. In the state of California, where black owned cannabis businesses are rare, Hakeem Brown owned and managed a licensed medical cannabis dispensary in Vallejo from 2009-2012, when it was shut down as part of a multi dispensary raid. The raid was deemed unlawful and the city was required to return the money seized during the police action. Brown used this money to open up a new garden to grow for patients in Napa. This garden was raided and Brown was arrested for possession with intent to distribute despite possessing documentation confirming the medical nature of the garden. For four years the case has dragged on, with the judge limiting the ways in which those who were Brown’s patients can testify on his behalf.

Stories like Hakeem Brown’s are too common in a state that has allowed medical cannabis use for decades and is known for its lassie-faire attitude about cannabis. In fact, cannabis remains illegal in California, but you wouldn’t know it by witnessing its flourishing industry. The cannabis culture on display in incubators and expo halls is a far cry from what is happening on the streets of the Golden State, where in 2014, there were over 13,000 felony arrests for cannabis, with black and Latino people overrepresented among them.

Cannabis has been a non-incarcerable offense in California since the 1970s, and possession of less than an ounce has not been an arrestable offense since then. However, the subjectivity of “possession”, vs. “possession with intent to distribute” enables police to use “evidence” such as an empty baggie or a certain amount of cash to take a non-arrestable offense and flip it to a potential felony. Or, as in the case of Hakeem Brown, claim that cannabis grown for medical purposes is simply a front for illegal dealing. In the city of Oakland, black people comprise 25% of the population yet 78% of those arrested for possession with intent to distribute. On the other hand, white people comprise 35% of the population and only 8% of those arrested for possession with intent to distribute.

The racially disparate policing of cannabis crimes is not new information. Multiple reports have highlighted this pervasive practice. In 2011, then-Governor Schwarzenegger passed a law moving simple possession of an ounce or less to an infraction. Now considered on par with a traffic ticket, guilty parties simply had to pay a fine, no court appearance, no criminal record. However, this change in penalty classification also came with downsides. Now data on marijuana possession offenses are no longer collected at the state level, which means it is now much more difficult to measure whether unequal enforcement persists after marijuana possession was reduced to an infraction. Additionally, as with traffic court, the fees added onto the fine can be hefty and can be more burdensome for some to pay than others.

In a collaboration between the Drug Policy Alliance and the ACLU of California, racial data on who is getting infractions were obtained from the cities of Los Angeles and Fresno and analyzed to determine whether there were racial disparities in marijuana possession enforcement. Data collected from Los Angeles and Fresno show that blacks were respectively cited for marijuana possession infractions 4 and 3.6 times more often than whites. The disparity is worse than the rates at which blacks were arrested for simple possession of marijuana prior to 2011, when possession was a misdemeanor offense. In 2010, black were 2.2 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. Latinos were cited for marijuana possession infractions 1.4 time in Los Angeles and 1.7 times in Fresno more often than whites. It is likely that these disparities are actually greater. California has a long history of data collection challenges regarding Latinos, who are often classified by law enforcement officers as white and thus undercounted.

Most marijuana possession citations are issued to young people in both jurisdictions, particularly in Los Angeles. The mean age for those receiving marijuana infractions is 26.58 years old in Los Angeles and 28.82 years old in Fresno. In both cities, the majority of marijuana possession infractions were issued to individuals 29 years of age and younger.

Hakeem Brown was lucky. He was found not guilty at his trial in April. While he was fighting for his freedom, others were planning for the green rush. The infraction and arrest data in California show that there is a bigger issue at stake than industry. The harms of cannabis prohibition persist in California, and they do so most for young people of color.

The Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which will give California voters the opportunity to legalized regulated marijuana this November, allows those in jail for marijuana offenses that will no longer be punishable by arrest to petition for release, and for those on probation or parole to have their records expunged. It also allows those with drug felonies to not only work in the industry but to be business owners. It’s far past time to stop the bleeding of prohibition that has been centered in our most vulnerable communities, and legalize cannabis in California. Once we move cannabis into a regulated market, we can slowly dress the wound left by decades of disparate enforcement by making a place in the industry for those like Hakeem Brown who have been on the front lines and have the scars to show for it.

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog:

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