How L.A. Is Rebuilding Communities Shattered By The ‘War On Drugs’

(NOTE: This story can also be found on Annenberg Media here)

Virgil Grant will never forget America’s “war on drugs”. After all, he was caught on the other side, and paid for it with six years of his life. Grant, one of the veterans of the medical marijuana business who owned one of the first shops in its history, was sent to federal prison for possession in 2008 – and it rankles.

That’s why Monday was especially sweet for him, as he sat in a large, packed Los Angeles City Council meeting and watched LA draw closer to making reparations for the harm done over decades by the ‘war’.

As California moves closer to starting recreational sales of marijuana next year, the City of Los Angeles is working on a proposed social equity program, which aims to address the disproportionate impact of the war on drugs on marginalized communities by giving them employment opportunities in the cannabis industry.

The city is expected to build its policy according to the recommendations of a committee it appointed, which has suggested that for every ‘general’ applicant made eligible to own or manage a cannabis-related business, one applicant from a marginalized or low-income community must be made able to qualify as well. The communities that are chosen for the program are the ones with an exceptionally high number of cannabis-related arrests and percentage of low-income households.

The criteria? The applicants must have lived in Los Angeles for at least five years, and their business must have at least a 51% minority ownership. It’s a tiered decision-making process, in which those who have prior cannabis-related conviction in California get first priority, those who’ve had someone close to them convicted get second, and those who are low-income residents third.

It’s sort of a way to heal the scars left by the drug war and give back to those who were most wounded by it, says Donnie Anderson, chair of the NAACP’s Cannabis Task Force. “They’ve made money off our backs, they made money off prisons. They took us from our households and broke up our families and it’s time for us to reap the benefits from our enslavement.”

Anderson, who also serves as the chair of the California Minority Alliance, was one of those who helped come up with and shape the program. He says he and others worked hard to ensure that the hardest hit are helped the most.

In the program, race is both nowhere and everywhere. While the program does not base its eligibility criteria on race but instead on impacted communities, it’s hard to deny that the communities hardest hit by the drug war and still suffering from its effects are those of people of color.

Using data from the Los Angeles Police Department and the 2010 US Census, the committee pointed out in its analysis that African Americans made up 9.6% of the city’s population, but represented about 40% of all cannabis-related arrests from 2000-2017. It cited a study by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that found that while the same percentage of black and white Americans use cannabis – and young black Americans actually consume it at lower rates than young white Americans – the arrests and convictions were at least four times more frequent and the sentencing much harsher for black people.

“The misnomer in the statement the ‘war on drugs’ is the word ‘drugs’. It is really a war on black people or on poor people,” says Brian Bowens, who still bears the burden of a felony conviction that has cast a shadow on his entire life and erased many of his hard-earned accomplishments.

“I’m a college graduate and with a felony conviction, you might as well just burn your degree. And as far as employment and traditional business opportunities and partnerships for me, the war on drugs has had a big impact,” says Bowens.

And that’s why he says he’s proud of the city for this program. “I think it is very important and extremely progressive for the city of Los Angeles to even consider social equity… It’s hopeful (to me) and very enlightening and inspiring.”

(PHOTO CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons/ Victorgrigas)

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