Picture this: in college, you pick up a summer job and discover that you’re good at it. You work it part time all through school before you enter the workforce full time, spending years gaining experience in your given field. You create lucrative business arrangements and form important contacts, becoming someone your clients know and trust.
You put your blood, sweat and tears into the business, possibly even risking your life and wellbeing for the job. And then, in one fell swoop, a person with zero experience and zero know-how is deemed the ‘expert’ in your profession while you are cast aside as an outlier. You’re required to stand on the sidelines, helpless, as those with a fraction of your experience are picked over you and lifted from obscurity into wealth. What do you do?
This scenario is playing out with legal marijuana, the billion-dollar industry touted as the next gold rush in the United States, and many feel that the only viable solution is a national weed reparations program aimed at getting veteran dealers as well as those hit hardest by the ‘War on Drugs’ into the game.
As the medicinal drug booms in more than half of the 50 states and potentially generates billions in revenue, lawmakers have become increasingly aware of an elephant in the room: that after decades of harsh drug laws that disproportionately targeted Blacks and Hispanics, those with drug-related criminal records are being shut out.
Several states have laws in place that bar those with felony criminal records from receiving dealer licenses, even if their records are for marijuana-related offenses — so, essentially, you can’t get a weed license if you’ve been arrested for selling weed. As such, activists and some government officials have begun to push not only for the federal legalization of marijuana, but also for reparations to be given to those that have had their lives and communities turned upside down by unfair drug laws.
Suggested forms of reparations include the release and record expungement of those serving sentences for marijuana-related offenses, possibly allocating funds from the industry for Blacks and Hispanics that wish to open dispensaries and waiving the fees of classes and certifications in order to become properly accredited growers and sellers.
In Oakland, California, lawmakers changed their regulations so that more minorities could have the opportunity to open dispensaries and have also introduced an equity program that bumps those with weed convictions that wish to get marijuana licenses to the front of the line.
Of course there has been pushback, as some argue that it’s unfair to give a "hand out" to others in the brand new industry; even former drug offenders that were punished for a substance that is now legal.
Other arguments against reparations include the question of precisely how eligibility would be determined (for example, is someone that has been arrested for selling synthetic weed eligible, or only those that sold ‘real’ weed?), along with the unpredictability of tying economic opportunities to both local and federal governments: licenses equal revenue for a given city, so would waiving the license fee eventually harm the city? Are these programs that would eventually have to be recalled in an economic downturn?
And while reparations aim to correct some of the inequity associated with laws barring drug offenders and startup fees, it can also cost upwards of $100,000 to maintain a legal marijuana dispensary, with many relying on small business or private loans and the help of investors or already established wealth to get the venture off the ground and keep it going.
In a country still struggling with racist lending policies and the barring of African-Americans from accumulating wealth through home ownership, this means that wealthy white males that have never been arrested are still the ones most likely to benefit from legalization.
How might reparations offset the huge amounts of money required for dispensary maintenance? These questions of eligibility and sustainability are some of the largest circling what is certainly poised to become a national issue.
It is truly ironic that as millions are left behind bars for weed-related offenses, legalization paves the way for others to get rich. Weed reparations policies need to be clear and effective, but with a rate of only 1% of dispensaries being owned by minorities, national policymakers must begin to consider if they are a feasible option to funnel people of color into this ‘budding’ industry.