Cynthia Nixon Was Right: New York Needs To Get with the Cannabis Equity Program

Donnell Alexander May 10, 2018

New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon speaks at the 47th annual NYC Cannabis Parade and Rally May 5, 2018. Nixon has draw fire for supporting cannabis equity as a "form of reparations." (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Pro­grams like Oakland’s are a first step toward — yes — reparations.

One night back in the late 90s, I smoked a joint with Sex and the City author Can­dace Bush­nell. We were on the bal­cony of an expen­sive East Side Man­hat­tan apart­ment. Spin mag­a­zine founder Bob Guc­cione, Jr. — boss of my then-wife — was there. Nobody was get­ting bust­ed for smok­ing pot. The idea was ludi­crous, not even a con­sid­er­a­tion. Mean­while, up the island in Harlem or, for that mat­ter, down the avenue in Alpha­bet City, dudes my age were get­ting cuffed up for the exact same out­door enjoy­ment. It was Giu­liani Time.

That night popped back into my head upon see­ing New York guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date Cyn­thia Nixon’s tweet on the need for cannabis equity.

We must ensure that every aspect of drug pol­i­cy going for­ward places the inter­ests, needs and con­cerns of those who’ve been most harmed in the past at the cen­ter, not the mar­gins — includ­ing who is able to ben­e­fit from the legal­iza­tion of mar­i­jua­na,” Nixon tweeted.

The priv­i­lege of the bal­cony I vis­it­ed that night was some­thing White Amer­i­ca could not much see, like those aquar­i­um fish swim­ming in bliss­ful igno­rance. The unre­lent­ing Green Rush has been just as unre­lent­ing­ly white. That’s despite Black America’s ties to the drug’s earthy essence, a gift to the jazz, hip­pie and hip-hop move­ments. For a peo­ple with such cul­tur­al equi­ty in mar­i­jua­na and such a his­to­ry of being over-policed, black peo­ple have lit­tle busi­ness equi­ty and a crim­i­nal rate of arrests.

Nixon is say­ing, to noisy con­ser­v­a­tive oppo­si­tion as black in New York City as it has been in Comp­ton, that she’s not going to just watch a new wrong rise to replace an old one. That the for­mer Sex and the City star is mak­ing this posi­tion part of her chal­lenge to incum­bent Gov. Andrew Cuo­mo speaks to just how far the push for cannabis equi­ty has come in a very short time.

Nixon and oth­ers have called these pro­grams a poten­tial form of repa­ra­tions. Real-deal repa­ra­tions would be some­thing much big­ger. For starters, cannabis repa­ra­tions are pri­mar­i­ly tar­get­ed at the war on drugs, while full repa­ra­tions would redress a chain of injus­tices that goes all the way back to slav­ery. Of the many forms such repa­ra­tions could take, the most direct are lump sum pay­ments to all African Amer­i­cans. Anoth­er option is aggre­gat­ing repa­ra­tions funds to make asset-build­ing grants avail­able to African Amer­i­cans over time. That’s arguably more fair, as Dan­ny Vinik writes in The New Repub­lic, in that it com­pen­sates for decades of lost human cap­i­tal” by build­ing the human and wealth cap­i­tal that black Amer­i­cans strug­gled to gain over the past few cen­turies.

Cannabis equi­ty is not yet at the point of deliv­er­ing any­thing more than ground-floor entrance to a boom­ing indus­try, and to just a rel­a­tive few. But the swift-mov­ing notion is still serv­ing to open a broad­er con­ver­sa­tion about reparations.

A wave from the West Coast

The move­ment to legal­ize weed shares a birth­place with the Black Pan­thers — the West Coast. In 1996, Cal­i­for­nia became the first state to allow med­ical mar­i­jua­na; in 2012, Col­orado and Wash­ing­ton led the way on legal­iz­ing all use. Most of the East remains igno­rant about mar­i­jua­na legal­iza­tion, allow­ing med­ical weed, at best.

So it’s only right that the city of Oak­land, Calif., spoke the con­cept of cannabis equi­ty into being. Oakland’s Cannabis Equi­ty Assis­tance Pro­gram went into effect at the start of this year, along with the legal­iza­tion of adult-use marijuana.

The pro­gram reserves half of Oakland’s mar­i­jua­na per­mits — which include licens­es to grow, test, trans­port, man­u­fac­ture prod­ucts, and dis­pense — for res­i­dents who make 80 per­cent or less of Oakland’s medi­an income (rough­ly $53,000 for a sin­gle per­son), have a mar­i­jua­na con­vic­tion and have resided in neigh­bor­hoods that have been vic­tim­ized by dis­pro­por­tion­ate pot arrests. Local entre­pre­neurs who don’t qual­i­fy, from would-be grow­ers to bud­ding dis­pen­saries, can part­ner with those who do and join them at the front of the license line.

Ver­sions of the pro­gram have spread to San Fran­cis­co, Sacra­men­to and my home city of Los Ange­les. The state of Cal­i­for­nia is devel­op­ing a sim­i­lar pro­gram, as are Penn­syl­va­nia, Flori­da and Ore­gon. Mass­a­chu­setts imple­ment­ed cannabis equi­ty last month. Busi­ness incu­ba­tion ini­tia­tives com­mon­ly accom­pa­ny the pro­grams, to help emerg­ing indus­tri­al­ists com­pete in a heat­ed mar­ket increas­ing­ly crowd­ed with MBAs.

Oakland’s pro­gram only pro­vides pay­back to entre­pre­neurs who reside in the most over-policed areas, even though low-lev­el pot deal­ers of col­or were also has­sled in oth­er Oak­town neigh­bor­hoods, as well as Berke­ley and San Fran­cis­co. Crit­ics — often small-scale cannabis entre­pre­neurs strug­gling to find a road to legal com­pli­ance — say the nar­row­ness of the equi­ty cri­te­ria unfair­ly forces them to com­pete against well-monied big timers.

A cannabis equi­ty pro­gram that actu­al­ly mir­rored repa­ra­tions would have a laser-like focus on devel­op­ing grow­ers — 40 acres and a mule refus­es to stop being a thing — instead of the low­er-yield­ing dis­pen­sary and deliv­ery busi­ness­es. There exists still the pos­si­bil­i­ty of an entrenched mar­i­jua­na-indus­try hier­ar­chy, with grow­ers reap­ing huge prof­its while blacks remain entrenched in the less depend­ably lucra­tive deliv­ery and dis­pen­sary sectors.

It’s hard to explain to peo­ple still mak­ing their peace with med­ical mar­i­jua­na and — philistines — with smok­ing mar­i­jua­na*, that, while not full-blown repa­ra­tions, cannabis has the poten­tial to grow into the most racial­ly pro­gres­sive indus­try ever. The Team­sters and UFCW have begun orga­niz­ing the large­ly Lati­no Cal­i­for­nia mar­i­jua­na trim­mer work­force. Exper­i­men­tal Los Ange­les and East Bay entre­pre­neurs are explor­ing avenues by which to fun­nel cannabis equi­ty div­i­dends into his­tor­i­cal­ly dis­crim­i­nat­ed-against sec­tors of Amer­i­ca, whether that means more and bet­ter can­na-busi­ness incu­ba­tors or police-mon­i­tor­ing pro­grams. Ben­e­fi­cia­ries would not even need to endorse the prod­uct to ben­e­fit. Cyn­thia Nixon knows these pos­si­bil­i­ties, and by Novem­ber, Gov. Cuo­mo will be called upon to fit in or fit out.

An open door

As with pussy,” repa­ra­tions” is a word I hard­ly imag­ined being main­streamed in my life­time. Pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump took care of the for­mer, through the evil-made-vocal of 2016. And here we are with Sex and the Citys Miran­da tak­ing us unex­pect­ed places, in the most pro­gres­sive man­ner imaginable.

Cannabis equi­ty isn’t an easy-access con­ver­sion for a nation still try­ing to decide whether the drug is addic­tive. Can­di­date Nixon has in her own way demand­ed that the door to a con­ver­sa­tion about repa­ra­tions open right now.

After that par­ty in Man­hat­tan, my white then-wife and I got off the train and prob­a­bly hugged up as we made our way through our new­ly gen­tri­fy­ing Brook­lyn neigh­bor­hood. Just a few miles away, the fore­run­ners of today’s green rush were get­ting bust­ed. I walked unafraid. Could have maybe sparked up a blunt and not had a prob­lem. You see, I had a white girl by my side. Cannabis equi­ty isn’t real repa­ra­tions; If it weren’t for the very crit­i­cal fact that black women birthed cannabis equi­ty, I would say that the the con­cept func­tions pret­ty much like a white girl to hold your hand and pro­tect you.

I dwelled in Ore­gon when legal­iza­tion came to that state three years ago. I took and passed my state bud­ten­der test and repeat­ed­ly applied for jobs. In a most­ly cash-based indus­try — fed­er­al laws still keep banks from inter­act­ing with even legal mar­i­jua­na — trust is an issue, and no one hired me. You should have seen some of the dim ston­ers who got hired over me.

A black busi­ness own­er might have kept me up North. The need for what Nixon is sell­ing is no small thing.

*It’s 2018; go get your­self a tinc­ture and a clue.

Non-fic­tion sto­ry­teller Don­nell Alexan­der makes pod­casts and films when he’s not writ­ing arti­cles. L.A. is his home.
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