The passage of Proposition 64 is another controversial twist in the road to legalization of marijuana in California. No less controversial is the acceptance of the recreational use of marijuana in the Black community.
The Black church, and other conservative or older members of the African American community, have been reluctant to accept both medical marijuana and recreational use of marijuana.
Perhaps because many African Americans who lived through the crack cocaine era of the early 1980s to the mid-1990s still remember the LAPD raids with armored vehicles, the turf wars between gangs and the vacant lots littered with trash left behind from lives in ruin. Perhaps many of the older church-going Black people felt like their years of progress borne out of the Civil Rights Movement rolled back with a puff of a crack pipe.
Therefore, the influx of drugs—legal or illegal—makes accessibility too easy for minors and too much of a threat to the wellbeing of the community.
“The church understands that the abuse of alcohol, prescription drugs etc. tend to provide an unhealthy escape from the challenges of life,” said Rev. Dr. W. Edward Jenkins, pastor of Victory Baptist Church, one of the oldest Black churches in South Los Angeles.
“The church offers Jesus, faith and prayer as a source of strength. Drugs offer an unhealthy alternative that will agitate and perpetuate the dilemmas of life. Therefore the position of the church should be to stand against the national legalization of (the recreational use) marijuana,” said Jenkins.
Dr. Jenkins added that African Americans shouldn’t think of Proposition 64 as a “Christmas gift.”
“One can smoke and not be penalized, but if you produce or distribute pot without a license you may go to jail,” he said. “Although it is legal in some states to use marijuana, there are employers and others who believe that pot impairs judgment, causes brain damage and users are addicts.”
The history of hemp and marijuana
There has been an ongoing debate over the effects of marijuana consumption to justify whether it should be classified by the Federal Drug Administration as a Schedule 2 drug, instead of the current classification of Schedule 1.” Schedule 2 means the drug has medical value. Historically, hemp—a sister plant to marijuana from cannabis sativa—was an important crop from Colonial times through World War II. Hemp was used to make rope, paper, foods and fabrics.
The campaign to outlaw hemp and marijuana reads like a chapter in the history of American greed. It has been suggested by advocates that hemp threatened the financial empires of tycoons in the paper, chemical, timber and petroleum industries in the early 1930s.
By the time Franklin Roosevelt became president, those powerful industrialists conspired to label hemp as part of the “devil’s weed” or the “evil marijuana” plant. Consequently, marijuana and hemp became illegal with the passage of the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act.
It is difficult to determine how the legalization of recreational marijuana will change Black incarceration rate.
Before the passage of Proposition 64, it was illegal to possess marijuana under state law. Penalties for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana (the equivalent to 40 marijuana cigarettes or “joints”) was punishable by a fine. Selling or growing marijuana could result in a jail or prison sentence.
Studies have shown that nationwide, White people consume cannabis at a higher rate than Black people, said Ryan Jennemann, the lead consultant at THC Design, which has become one of the leading cultivators of cannabis in California by utilizing cutting-edge science and technology to provide medical marijuana.
“But Blacks are four times more likely than Whites to be arrested for cannabis crimes,” said Jennemann. “That’s disgusting and unacceptable. Going to jail on a drug-related felony can ruin a young person’s life. Proposition 64 changes that. We (the cannabis industry) think it (passage of the law) will have a very positive impact on minorities and their communities,” he added.
Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, endorsed Proposition 64 and stated: “Creating a legal, responsible and regulated framework for marijuana is a predominant civil rights issue and it’s long overdue. The current system is counterproductive, financially wasteful and racially biased, and the people of California have repeatedly called for it (the situation) to be fixed. This measure will ensure that California is not unjustly criminalizing responsible adults while also ensuring that our children are protected while the state receives hundreds of millions of new dollars for vital government and community-based programs.”
The measure also contains a social equity component that will correct the injustice suffered by people of color. Individuals serving sentences for activities that are made legal or are subject to lesser penalties under the measure would be eligible for resentencing. Qualifying individuals would be resentenced to whatever punishment they would have received under the new measure. Resentenced individuals currently in jail or prison would be subject to probation for up to one year following their release, unless a court removes that requirement.
“Over the past decade, nearly half a million people have gone to jail in California for cannabis-related offenses,” said Jennemann. “And just last year, more than 10,000 people were charged with felonies related to cannabis.
“California is probably the sixth largest economy in the world, but it is the single largest cannabis market in the world. As a frame of reference, the population of California is more than the population of Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and Amsterdam combined. So I’d say it’s certainly a major victory for the industry,” said Jenneman.
Under the new legal measure, possession of one ounce or less of marijuana by someone under 21 years old would be punishable by a requirement to attend a drug education or a counseling program and complete community service. Selling marijuana without a license would be a crime generally punishable up to four years. Under Proposition 64, selling marijuana would be punishable by up to six months in county jail and/or a fine of up to $500.
The California Minority Alliance—making the new laws work for minorities
Virgil Grant was originally in the weed business, banking $20,000 every two days. Weary from the street hustle, he opened Holistic Caregivers in Compton in 2004, a medical marijuana collective after Proposition 215 legalized medical cannabis and the Legislature sanctioned such dispensaries in 2003.
Grant was on his way to becoming the cannabis king of Los Angeles, owning six medical marijuana collectives between Compton and the San Fernando Valley. Grant said his collectives were legal businesses, having licenses and bank records.
But his reign was cut short in 2008 when Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided all six of his dispensaries and his house simultaneously and arrested him. He was indicted on 41 counts of conspiracy to distribute 100 Kilograms or more of marijuana THC products, promotional money laundering, and money laundering. He was sentenced to six years in prison in 2010. Grant was released in 2015.
The big question is why Grant? One could speculate that it was because he is an African American man who was killing the game or perhaps it was because he was targeted. A patient (that’s what cannabis customers of medical marijuana are called) who had just left one of Grant’s collectives ran his vehicle into a police officer who, as a result, became paralyzed.
Since his release, Grant and his partner, Donnie Anderson, created the California Minority Alliance (CMA) and have been organizing the industry. Grant said the CMA will represent minority interests on everything from how to get a cannabis license to how to expunge criminal records. “I want people to know what responsible legal operators look like,” said Grant. “It’s not just a bunch of people sitting around getting high. That’s not what medical marijuana is about.”
Grant and Anderson have also formed the Southern California Coalition to represent all facets of the cannabis industry and are in talks with Los Angeles City Council. The coalition and the council will hold a series of town hall meetings to determine how best to begin the process of ironing out regulations for the new measure.
“The city council is in the process of conducting an open and public conversation about how best to regulate all aspects of the marijuana, or cannabis industry, within the City of Los Angeles,” said Council President Herb Wesson. “These are our neighborhoods … our communities, and together we will have a robust conversation about the regulatory issues and a healthy debate.”
The green rush and the Black community
It’s a well-known fact that one of the reasons Proposition 64 was on the ballot was because California government is cash-strapped. Ironically, after collecting millions of dollars through the prison industrial complex by incarcerating Black men for possession, sales or trafficking cannabis, California will make more by legalizing it. Experts estimate that legalizing recreational marijuana could potentially generate more than $1 billion dollars annually.
So how does the Black community profit from this new green rush?
“One of the big reasons minorities haven’t gotten into the marijuana industry is because the traditional relationship between minorities and drugs has not been a positive one,” said Grant.
“There are a whole host of opportunities to get involved with it now—from cultivation and manufacturing to ancillary businesses like web design and carpentry. It’s an industry. It’s not just selling weed. Those days are over,” said Grant.
But until the federal, state and local governments iron out regulations for the new measure, only medical marijuana dispensaries will be operating legally. Grant said he hopes that the older Black generation begins to embrace change.
“They see cannabis as another drug that is going to ravage their community like all of the other drugs did in the past,” said Grant who claims he doesn’t smoke marijuana. “But if someone has a gunshot wound or when it gets cold and people’s arthritis flares up and throbs, cannabis can take the pain away,” he added.
But Grant is not surprised that the measure is a polarizing issue in the Black community.
“As a pastor and a former member of the LAPD, I am totally against the legalization of marijuana or any illicit drug usage because of the lack of regulation,” said Ed Williams. “If we look back at history, we can see that legalization of alcohol has helped no one but the manufacturers of the alcohol. Our families and our culture have suffered due to our lack of control in the area of alcohol and drug addictions. I believe legalization of marijuana will only further destroy our families and our society as a whole,” added Williams.
But some members of the community feel there are benefits to legal medical marijuana.
“It’s hypocritical to allow liquor dispensaries which fail to meet modern-day criteria for medicinal purposes and not allow a place for marijuana to be purchased for medicinal controlled purposes,” said Jenkins.
It has been reported that doctors were just beginning to discover the medicinal purpose of marijuana, when it was outlawed in 1937.