Weed Reparations To Make up for Unfair Jailing of Cannabis Consumers

Matt Weeks August 13, 2018 0 comments

Weed Reparations aims to correct the fall out of the unjust incarceration of people of colour.

New laws have legalized cannabis for medical and recreational use in many states. But this freedom for a once-demonized plant has opened Pandora’s Box. What about the people currently in prison or awaiting trial? How do you atone for a medieval mindset that locked away cannabis consumers for participating in an activity that is no longer illegal? And can weed reparations accomplish this?

What are Weed Reparations?

Lawmakers are grappling with how and whether to amend the draconian sentences of former cannabis consumers and sellers. Some cities have adopted programs that go beyond pardons to so-called  “weed reparations.” It is a concept similar to the proposal that the U.S. remunerate the descendants of slaves for their ancestors’ forced, unpaid labor.

And, just like their namesake, weed reparations have become hotly contested. In today’s political climate, this may never change. But the debate is worth having — and it’s not the typical right-versus-left argument you might expect.

For instance, actress-turned-Democratic-politician, Cynthia Nixon, proposed that New York should prioritize people of color when giving out cannabis licenses. Her suggestion was immediately lambasted by both Al Sharpton and Black Lives Matter of Greater New York.

To understand why this issue is causing peculiar political divisions and creating strange bedfellows, we need to examine specific and broader context.

Black People Unjustly Targeted by Police

The same system that kept cannabis out of the hands of suffering cancer patients also contributed to a different, but equally nefarious problem — one of unequal consequences for equal violations.

In story after story, the American press has uncovered and publicized the disproportionate stopping, searching and sentencing of people of color. For instance, in Oakland, California, where the population is one-third black, one-third white, and one-third Latino, each demographic tends to report a similar amount of cannabis consumption. Yet the arrest and sentencing statistics show that black people make up more than two-thirds of the cannabis arrests.

Black Youth being searched arrested

The reparations movement grew out of an attempt to rectify a systemic problem. One that put a greater burden on the shoulders of African-American cannabis enthusiasts and patients. The movement offered these victims of the War on Drugs a helping hand into employment in the fledgling industry.

Oaklands’ attempt at reparations, called the “Equity Permit Program” mandates that half of all new dispensary licenses be awarded to people jailed in the last ten years for cannabis-related crimes. Or people who make less than eighty percent of the average city income and live in areas hardest hit by the drug war.

White People own Most Dispensaries

The Equity Permit Program passed unanimously. The program does not seek to start the city’s cannabis industry off on fair footing. But rather to quickly rectify a trend that’s become conspicuous in the fledgling industry: the vast majority of all cannabis businesses are owned by white people.

That statistic may partially come from laws that forbid criminals from entering the cannabis business space. But many cities, like San Francisco, have policies in place to expunge those convictions.

So far, equity programs have faced a myriad of obstacle. Some from external parties and some self-created. For example, many of these programs planned to fund themselves through the tax revenue from cannabis, which in some cases has yet to materialize. Another road block is that cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. So many municipalities have struggled with ways to legally provide funds to cannabis entrepreneurs. This is because many federally insured banks don’t want to run afoul of Washington.

Black man being attacked by a white man with American flag

Image Credit: Stanley Forman. Pulitzer Prize winning

Weed Reparations Ignite Racial Disputes

And, of course, there’s the public backlash. While most of the cannabis laws do not mention race, no one denies the racial aspect. Even  those who claim the American justice system is color blind. So, accusations of racism and reverse racism abound. In some ways, cannabis reparations seem to be yet another proxy war for long-simmering racial disputes in the country. But there are also valid concerns about the programs.

For one thing, they don’t seem to work very well so far (although it’s honestly a bit too early to make a definitive judgment). For another, there are concerns that these kinds of programs further tie what many people may consider a negative thing (cannabis) to African Americans, strengthening a stereotype that dates back to the Jazz Age.

Do Weed Reparations Hurt Free Market Cannabis?

There are also those who claim that public policy prescriptions, like equity programs, hamper the free market. This hurts all consumers and, in this specific case, weakens the case for cannabis legalization. This is because bureaucracy has slowed down the industry to the point that many consumers are still opting for illegal options instead of going through approved dispensaries.

Yet, despite the inevitable obstacles of a new public policy program, many states are following Oakland’s lead. Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Maryland have either implemented or in the process of crafting similar proposals—although the details vary, just like the legalizations laws do.

Author avatar

Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."

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