What About Pookie?
As cannabis prohibition comes to an end and marijuana is legalized for both recreational and medical use, there are a number of lingering questions that should and must be raised.
What do we do about the brother on the corner — let’s call him Pookie — who we used to patronize for our marijuana purchases?
Will we once again exclude people based on criminal conviction histories, while knowing that it will severely impact certain disadvantaged communities while granting an advantage to others?
Will Californians once again capitulate to the practice of structural discrimination and racism in silence?
Will we be required to turn a blind eye to the emergence of a legal billion-dollar marijuana industry that was nurtured in the underground economy for generations?
Will Californians pretend that black people in particular and people of color in general were not disproportionately stopped, frisked, arrested, prosecuted, jailed, and imprisoned in the name of a drug war?
In America, the front lines of the drug war were most often in communities of color. Despite similar rates of use and selling, black people in America are 10 times more likely to go to prison for marijuana violations than whites.
In order for the drug war to be waged so vigorously in black communities, we not only had to label the various illegal substances as dangerous. We also had to label the people who sold them as dangerous.
I can’t help but wonder what happened to the Prohibition-era bootleggers when we decided to once again allow the sale and distribution of alcohol. Even more importantly, what happened to those trade people engaged in the distribution of alcohol in marginalized communities? In our ghettos there are no shortages of liquor stores, but do we own them?
A more recent look at history, in relationship to number running — what we know today as “the lottery” — could prove to be more instructive. At one time, we called this practice illegal gambling, and called both it and the people engaged as dangerous — until we decided it was only fitting that such activity could fund our public schools.
However, not once did we pause to ever think about what might happen to those people who had jobs as number runners. They were not suddenly absorbed in distribution of lotto tickets. Whatever happened to all those dangerous people?
California is on the brink of a new gold rush, and we have a small window of time to get it right. Marijuana prohibition will end regardless of existing structural discrimination around race, gender, and economics. Since that is so, how can we ensure that economically marginalized communities have a share in the profits?
We need to stop Pookie from historically being thrown under the bus again, again and again.
A few simple guidelines for all the initiative writers and funders out there: Don’t make the licensing fees too high, don’t exclude people with criminal records from licensure, do provide access to capital for low income entrepreneurs.
Do allocate revenue to the communities most impacted by the drug war, and do roll back criminal penalties for marijuana, prospectively and retroactively.
I ask for all the people waiting to hit the joint legally to please consider all the social and economic implications of how we bring this illicit market into the daylight of society.
Dorsey Nunn is executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.