CA: Marijuana And Racial Justice: Striking Differences In 2 Cities

Photo Credit: Ray Holley

When officers burst into Rickey McCullough’s two-story home in Oakland a decade ago they noted a “strong fresh odor of marijuana.” McCullough had been growing large amounts of marijuana illegally, police said. He was arrested and spent a month in jail.

A few weeks ago the city of Oakland, now promoting itself as a hub for marijuana entrepreneurs, awarded McCullough, 33, a license to sell marijuana and the prospect of interest-free loans.

Four hundred miles to the south, in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton, Virgil Grant, 50, straddles the same two worlds, but with a different outcome. He was a marijuana dealer in the 1990s whose customers are said to have included rap stars like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac, and he spent more than eight years in prison on marijuana convictions. But his vision of starting a marijuana dispensary in his hometown was dashed in January when the residents of Compton voted decisively to ban marijuana businesses from city limits.

From a distance, the legalization of recreational marijuana in California can appear like a giant collective embrace of the drug by a state that is by far its largest producer and consumer. Yet the diverging paths of Oakland and Compton, two cities with histories of illicit drugs and years of aggressive law enforcement crackdowns, highlight the continued ambivalence of many Californians toward marijuana.

It is also a lesson for states and municipalities across the country that are drawn to marijuana legalization as a source of revenue and see it as an inevitability given the failure of decades of federal efforts to stamp out cannabis. National polls suggest a majority of Americans favor legalization. But opinions can diverge sharply at the local level, and there are tensions between those who want to treat it as a business and those who see it as an opportunity for social justice.

Several states, including Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania, are drawing up or have provisions in their marijuana laws to assist communities disproportionately affected by drug interdiction efforts.

In California, Oakland led the way in framing the legalization as both an opportunity to address past injustice and as a source of revenue. Yet dozens of other cities and towns across the state — including Bakersfield, Brentwood, Chico, Irvine, Laguna Beach, Mill Valley and Palo Alto — want nothing to do with recreational marijuana sales.

Only 14 percent of California’s 482 cities and towns allow retail sales of recreational marijuana, according to Weedmaps, a website that hosts reviews of cannabis businesses. Californians may want access to a marijuana dispensary, just not necessarily down the block from them.

When legalization came into effect in California in January, Oakland started a program that offered licenses to those with previous marijuana arrests. The idea, which has been copied in cities like Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco, was intended as a sort of redress for the years before legalization when blacks and other nonwhites were arrested at rates that were disproportionate to their share of the population.

“The war on drugs was a very specific war on a very specific community and culture,” said Darlene Flynn, director of Oakland’s Department of Race and Equity.

Oakland’s equity program goes to the heart of a paradox of legal marijuana sales in California: While large numbers of those arrested before legalization were black, most of the cannabis businesses in the post-legalization era are run by white men.

Last year, Oakland produced a report showing that 77 percent of cannabis-related arrests in 2015 were of African-Americans, who make up around 30 percent of the city’s 420,000 residents.

“We have plenty of data that demonstrates that white people use and distribute drugs at the same rate as minorities do,” Flynn said. “There was an extreme tilt with regards to arrests and convictions.”

In addition to those with marijuana convictions, Oakland’s program is open to people who lived in neighborhoods that had a particularly heavy police presence during the decades of marijuana prohibition.

Like Oakland, Compton has a history of police abuse and high crime rates. In 2012, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department experimented with an aircraft that recorded high-definition images of the city, which allowed it to track everything happening on the streets. The experiment was kept secret from the city’s residents until it was revealed two years later, to much outrage.

But both cities have had rising fortunes in recent years. Crime has fallen and economic prospects have brightened. The median price of a home in Compton is $384,000, a 75 percent increase from five years ago, according to Zillow, the real estate data company. The rise has been even more dramatic in Oakland: Prices have doubled in five years, to a median of $746,100.

Yet when the question of marijuana legalization came to Compton, residents responded with a completely different answer from Oakland.

Civic and church groups in Compton banded together to campaign door-to-door against two ballot measures that would have allowed marijuana dispensaries and other cannabis manufacturing businesses.

“We’ve been working so hard trying to change the image of Compton,” said the Rev. Stanley W. Prince, a leader of the “no” campaign that was victorious in the January vote. “There is an economy that can be developed without having weed as the main product.”

Young people in Compton have a much smaller margin of error than people in wealthier places, Prince said. They could easily be denied jobs or be fired from them because of marijuana use.

“We are trying to show that it will not work in our community,” he said.

In late January, a decisive 76 percent of voters in Compton rejected the proposals that would have allowed marijuana businesses.

Compton’s city manager, Cecil W. Rhambo Jr., said the vote underlined the strength of underestimated conservative views on marijuana in the city, which has a population of just under 100,000.

Rhambo said the vote showed that the “city portrayed in rap videos is different from the values of the older people who live here, the high propensity voters.”

Compton still struggles with violence — there were 27 murders in 2017. But that is a fraction of the numbers in the 1980s and 1990s.

Longtime Compton residents, especially those who live in parts of town with neat rows of ranch houses and citrus trees, emphasize a sense of community and the household names who grew up in the city, among them tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, actor Kevin Costner and former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. (The Williams sisters returned to Compton 16 months ago for a ceremony that dedicated a set of municipal tennis courts in their name.)

“It was just an idyllic place to grow up,” said James Hays, 61, the owner of a medical technology company who moved to Compton as a child in 1961. “You had nice single-family homes and manicured lawns, clean streets.”

Like many others in the no campaign, Hays blames the town’s deterioration on drugs, including marijuana.

“Drugs tore this community up,” he said. “We saw people who started with marijuana and moved to heavier drugs.”

James Anthony, a lawyer in Oakland and a marijuana advocate, says he has detected wariness among community leaders toward legalization, especially in black communities.

“They’ve spent decades and generations telling people just say no to drugs — drugs are bad,” Anthony said. “Now some people are beginning to say, ‘Well, this is an economic opportunity for our community and the war on drugs was a bad, racist program, so we should have the opportunity to make some money on this.’”

“It’s a conflicted situation,” he said.

McCullough, the Oakland resident who received a marijuana license in January, has no ambivalence.

He was one of four equity candidates chosen by lottery from a pool of dozens of residents who applied for a license to sell cannabis.

“If you look at the numbers, we were definitely more targeted than any other race,” said McCullough, who is black. “The city is helping us to fight back.”

His arrest a decade ago made him eligible to obtain a license. On the afternoon of August 2008, a burglar smashed through the window of McCullough’s home, prompting neighbors to call the police. The officers who responded did not find the intruder but seized 10 ounces of marijuana he had grown, a rifle and ammunition. McCullough went from being the victim of a burglary to the object of an investigation that led to his conviction.

In recent weeks, McCullough has received numerous offers from would-be investors and is still scouting for locations for his dispensary.

“It’s a good feeling because there’s been some kind of social justice here,” McCullough said. “I’d like to see this program implemented nationwide.”

Grant, the marijuana businessman from Compton, has three marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles. But operating in his hometown, where his family owns a grocery store, will require some convincing.

He thinks Compton will come around to the idea.

“This is a billion-dollar industry soon to become a trillion-dollar industry,” he said. “Why wouldn’t they want to receive some of that?”