LA City Council Cannabis vote.jpeg

The City Council doors swung open yesterday, and the air in their grand chambers was as cool as always. The Council was finally ready to vote on a comprehensive set of regulations for the City’s commercial cannabis industry because, come January 1st, Los Angeles will be the largest adult use (21+) marijuana market in the world. Billions of dollars, thousands of jobs are on the table.

Elsewhere in the city of Los Angeles, two wildfires raged in the Santa Ana winds. Three Councilmembers couldn’t attend the meeting because of the fires, but they had the 12 they needed to pass the regulations. Outside, the smoky air turned the sunlight a strange shade of amber.

And the smoke belied the fire inside the Council chambers, as advocates, business owners, union delegates, and organizers gathered to push the regulations across the finish line.

The Council meeting began with the performance of a song from Beauty and The Beast: “A Change in Me.” Because this is LA.

Because this is LA, and context is everything. The true fire burning at the heart of the cannabis debate was the “social equity” program - the means by which the City of LA will attempt to repair the damage it has done through decades of a racist war on drugs.

The regulations passed unanimously, and most of the Councilmembers, regardless of their race or ethnicity, noted this as they congratulated themselves for passing a social equity program that is among the most progressive in the nation, which is easy to say when only four such programs will exist next year (Oakland, Sacramento, and San Francisco are the other cities implementing them).

These programs allow people with cannabis convictions, or low-income people who live or have lived in neighborhoods that endured a disproportionate number of arrests for cannabis, to receive some special considerations and services when applying for a cannabis business license.

It’s called a “social equity” program because it’s illegal in California to give preferential treatment based on race or ethnicity. (Even though law enforcement does this all time. Hence the need for the program.)

The social equity program in LA was supposed to include a community reinvestment fund, but last week, the funding mechanism for it (a small levy on all cannabis businesses) was removed.

What is a fund without funding? What is social equity program that doesn’t address the decades of jobs, housing, and educations lost to cannabis convictions? What of the children whose parents went to jail and prison for participating in the same industry that will soon mint millionaires? What of the estimated 500,000 people in California who will soon be too poor to consume cannabis because it’ll be illegal to smoke in public, in your car, and Federally-subsidized housing? What does social equity mean if, in three years, none of those first social equity applicants are still in business? What does it mean if young people of color, under the age of 21, are still disproportionately ticketed and harassed for using or selling marijuana (as they have been in Colorado)? What exactly were we celebrating?

Yesterday’s vote marked the success of many years of organizing - Los Angeles now has a framework for a legal, adult use cannabis industry, and it has a social equity program. Those are worth celebrating, but before we finish congratulating ourselves, let’s be real about the work ahead.

This is why Cage-Free Cannabis exists, and it’s why we’ll be launching to the wider world in 2018. We’ll be working to ensure this industry is sustainable and inclusive - to ensure that social equity means true, holistic repair for the people and communities that need it.

- Adam Vine
Co-founder, Cage-Free Cannabis