You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

The activists helping illegal pot dealers turn into legit marijuana businessmen

The Guardian The Guardian 11/06/2016 Sam Levin in San Francisco

File photo of medicinal marijuana at the medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento, Calif. © Rich Pedroncelli/AP File photo of medicinal marijuana at the medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento, Calif. Joshua Weitz’s marijuana delivery company was supposed to be the biggest achievement of his life. The San Francisco native began dealing weed when he was 14 years old, and by 2013 he was eager to apply his skills in a legitimate medical cannabis business with a California license.

“You get this sense of a real supreme accomplishment. It felt so good to build something,” said Weitz, now 33.

But just before he was about to open the doors to Mirage Medicinal, his dream came crashing down. Weitz was pulled over while driving on Interstate 40 in Texas in July of 2014 and was charged with a felony for marijuana possession.

Weitz’s predicament sheds light on what activists have increasingly identified as a major injustice in the burgeoning pot industry: underground growers and drug dealers have been systematically shut out, and victims of the war on drugs have been unable to participate in the booming marijuana economy.

“The irony for me is that we’re going to keep out everybody who has been convicted of transporting or selling narcotics from the business of transporting and selling narcotics,” Weitz said, “which is essentially what you call colonialism. We’re going to land on your land, use all of your resources, and you can’t be involved in profiting from it. It’s totally insane.”

Now out of jail, Weitz is helping his sister as a consultant in the weed delivery operation. But if laws don’t change, he doesn’t know if he’ll ever have an opportunity to run the business he worked so hard to conceive.

Dispensary equity

In California, where voters are expected to legalize recreational marijuana in November, there’s a small, but growing movement to eliminate barriers in the industry for people with pot offenses on their records. Some officials are now even promoting policies and programs aimed at directly encouraging current and former drug dealers to open businesses.

Advocates say it’s an uphill battle – and an urgent one. By and large, the regulatory systems that are rapidly expanding across the US have rules that make it difficult or impossible for people like Weitz to become licensed operators. As a result, wealthy entrepreneurs, who are often white men, are dominating and profiting off of the sale of marijuana while those who continue to suffer the consequences of harsh pot laws – primarily people of color – are denied opportunities.

A customer checks the aroma of a jar of medicinal marijuana at a dispensary in Sacramento.Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Officials in the city of Oakland – where black residents are disproportionately stopped and searched for drugs – hope to counter this trend with a newly adopted “dispensary equity” program that backers say is the first of its kind in the nation.

The policy stipulates that half of new medical cannabis permits in Oakland must go to applicants who are local or have been impacted by marijuana laws. Dispensaries qualify if they have an owner who has lived for at least two years in parts of Oakland that have had high rates of arrests and unemployment or if an owner was incarcerated for a marijuana conviction in the city.

Dispensaries that hire formerly incarcerated Oaklanders can also apply for tax credits or license fee reductions.

“You could argue this is a form of reparations for war crimes,” said city councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan. “It’s part of how we undo the harm of the drug war.”

Advocates hope proactive policies, combined with outreach to communities that have faced high numbers of pot arrests, could help reverse that pattern. Oakland councilwoman Desley Brooks said she hoped the city’s program would be a model for other governments. “This is an opportunity for urban communities across the country to help create jobs and create ownership opportunities for its residents,” she said.

There are a number of grassroots equity initiatives already in the works in California, but some fear that systemic hurdles will continue to block those who are most suited to work in the industry from accessing jobs.

‘Weed is the next bubble’

At a monthly cannabis meetup by Lake Merritt in Oakland, the hosts have increasingly attracted marijuana enthusiasts who want to transform their illegal activities into legitimate businesses, according to organizer Sarah Ceti.

“We’re a bridge from the unofficial underground market into the legal market,” said Ceti, chief operations officer at Green Rush Consulting, an Oakland-based firm that provides guidance to cannabis entrepreneurs.

The events bring together industry experts and street dealers or underground growers who are interested in learning about the ins and outs of acquiring permits and running authorized operations, she said.

Joshua Weitz: ‘The irony for me is that we’re going to keep out everybody who has been convicted of transporting or selling narcotics from the business of transporting and selling narcotics.’Photograph: Sam Levin for the Guardian

In Oakland, advocates are also in the early stages of launching a dispensary that would partner with reentry organizations and provide jobs and mentorship opportunities to formerly incarcerated people.

The idea is that the operation would allow people with arrest records to not only access employment, but also develop their own businesses within the industry, said Amanda Reiman, who is launching the project and is also the manager of marijuana law and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance.

“We want people who were formerly involved in cannabis to stay involved in cannabis … That would help them build a future for them and their families.”

Another newly formed California group called Supernova Women is dedicated to recruiting people of color into the marijuana industry.

In addition to being owner of Mirage Medicinal, Parks is also a co-founder of Supernova and has made it a personal mission to help provide opportunities to people disenfranchised by marijuana laws.

One of her drivers was previously arrested for cannabis offenses, she said.

“I don’t want them to see this industry pass them by when they had to go through such trauma in their life.”

In San Francisco, Parks and her friends grew up surrounded by weed, and she said it would be devastating to see a marijuana boom that mirrored the tech industry, which is overwhelmingly white and has exacerbated income inequality.

“This is our way of being able to get some ownership,” she said. “Tech has taken over, and weed is the next bubble.”

Recreational legalization

Some worry that the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), California’s legalization measure on the ballot in the fall, which is widely expected to legalize recreational marijuana, will block creative equity initiatives from flourishing. That’s because the policy permits the state to deny marijuana licenses to people who have “been convicted of an offense that is substantially related to the qualifications, functions, or duties of the business or profession for which the application is made”.

Though the policy allows for discretion and does not automatically block those with criminal records, critics say it sets the stage for a discriminatory industry that is unwelcoming to former street dealers.

Though the policy allows for discretion and does not automatically block those with criminal records, critics say it sets the stage for a discriminatory industry that is unwelcoming to former street dealers.Photograph: STF/AFP/Getty Images

Weitz said it seems likely that under AUMA, which is backed by Silicon Valley billionaire Sean Parker, he would be barred from operating a recreational pot business. “I want to be a part of the respectable industry, have people come into my own shop.”

“The public at large wants some assurances that there are going to be strict controls.”

One way to push back against exclusionary practices is to allow people convicted of marijuana offenses to have their records expunged, which advocates said would open up doors in the industry and beyond.

“People shouldn’t be locked out of any job for … past marijuana convictions,” Kaplan said. “That’s part of what it means to end the war on marijuana.”

More from The Guardian

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon