SF confronts ‘disastrous impacts’ of war on drugs

The nation’s war on drugs has had “disastrous impacts” for residents of color even in cities with famously liberal reputations like San Francisco.

As the era of legal cannabis begins in California on Jan. 1, The City has an opportunity to begin repairing some of the damage from decades of drug arrests by giving residents impacted by the drug war a priority to obtain a permit to sell cannabis through an equity program.

As part of this process, The City has been forced to confront its drug enforcement history.

“The war on drugs had disastrous impacts on San Francisco,” reads a recently issued report by the Office of Cannabis in partnership with the Human Rights Commission and the City Controller’s Office.

“For decades, the war on drugs has had consequential impacts on communities of color in San Francisco,” the report continues. “The impacts of this disproportionality are acutely felt today: poverty, education gaps and criminal records are the vestiges of explicitly and implicitly racist drug enforcement policies.”

The report draws its conclusions by analyzing San Francisco’s drug arrest data, which found, for example, that in 2008 black people in San Francisco were 19.2 times more likely than non-black people to be arrested for a drug felony and 4.5 times more likely than black people elsewhere in the state.

And while in 2016 racial disparities narrowed from the 2008 “peak year,” black people in San Francisco were arrested on drug felonies 10 times more than people of other races and 2.4 times higher than black people elsewhere in California, according to the report.

Among those who support an equity program are Joshua Weitz, 35, who grew up in the Mission, and his sister Nina Parks, 33.

Weitz was arrested and pled to a felony charge in 2014, when he was pulled over and arrested in Texas with about 100 pounds of California-grown cannabis in his truck, which he intended to sell in New York.

His misfortunes continued when got arrested for selling a pound of cannabis in New York and was sentenced in 2015 to one year in Rikers Island Correctional Center.

At the time, Weitz said he was working to raise enough capital to launch a dispensary in San Francisco, which he estimated would have cost him about $500,000, but now would cost upward of $2 million in liquid capital.

As it stands, Weitz wouldn’t qualify for the equity program because the proposed criteria includes having been convicted of a drug-related crime between 1971 and 2009. But the siblings argue the board should expand the criteria to 2016, given the report’s findings.

Weitz said that growing up in the Mission and listening to hip-hop, marijuana was just part of the culture. “It’s ingrained in who I am,” he said.

And it was a business that worked for him. “I missed the tech bubble. I wasn’t into computers,” Weitz said. “This is the green bubble.”

Weitz said the equity program could help set people up for life with a well-paying livelihood given the booming cannabis industry.

When Weitz was doing time at Rikers Island, his sister decided to pick up where he left off. Parks launched her brother’s envisioned delivery service, Mirage Medicinal, but it’s not currently permitted in San Francisco as a dispensary. She added Mirage Moon Yoga to the business, where people use cannabis and practice yoga at alternating locations.

Parks also co-founded the organization Supernova Women, which advocates for women of color in leadership business roles in the largely white male dominated cannabis industry.

The Board of Supervisors, which requested the report, has struggled to adopt recreational cannabis regulations amid competing political pressures. Opposition to the entire industry is coming from some Chinese-American residents who call for an outright ban on cannabis. At the request of Supervisor Malia Cohen, who introduced the equity program, the board postponed a Nov. 14 vote on regulations until Tuesday.

The board was poised to vote on whether to allow existing medical cannabis dispensaries to start selling retail cannabis Jan. 1, while punting other tough decisions, such as the most controversial issue of how far from schools and daycare centers new cannabis outlets must be.

Cohen and equity supporters feared it would jeopardize any hopes of enacting a successful equity program. “How can equity applicants catch up if we allow existing privileged MCDs a pass forward?” Cohen asked at the Nov. 14 meeting.

Days before the postponement, Cohen joined a rally on the steps of City Hall denouncing stricter regulations on where cannabis outlets can open, arguing it would undermine the equity program.

“A successful program will ensure a more inclusive and diverse industry through ownership and workforce, an expansion of educational opportunities, an end to policies that burden communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, and investment in communities that are disenfranchised because of the consequences of past drug policies,” the report reads.

The report also notes that “where The City allows cannabis businesses to operate will have important impacts on whether we can grow the industry equitably.”

Other arrest data examined by the report found that from 1980 to the mid-1990s, “San Francisco’s racial patterns in enforcement of drug laws roughly resembled those statewide” but that black people in San Francisco “were four to five times more likely to be arrested for drug felonies prior to the mid-1990s than their proportion of the total population would predict.”

Between 1995 and 2009, there was an “an explosion in drug felony arrests” of black people in San Francisco that did not occur elsewhere in California or for any other races, according to the report.

Looking only at cannabis arrests, the report found that “from 1990-2016, black individuals represent an increasingly larger percentage of total cannabis-related arrests in San Francisco” even as black people comprised an ever-shrinking percentage of the total population, which ranged from 11 percent in 1990 to today’s 6 percent.

“Even as the number of total arrests drastically falls around 2011, after the downgrading of misdemeanor cannabis possession to an infraction, black cannabis arrests as a percentage of total arrests hovers around 50 percent,” the report said.

The report also attempts to show a correlation between a higher number of cannabis arrests and the “potential economic disadvantage as a result.” By mapping cannabis arrests in recent years, the report found higher concentrations in low-income neighborhoods with high rates of unemployment like in the Bayview-Hunters Point, Mission and the Tenderloin.

Weitz, Parks and other equity program supporters say they have no issue with existing dispensaries starting to sell come January, but only if The City also starts accepting equity applications at the same time and finalizes land use regulations without the tougher restrictions being proposed.

“I’m not alone in terms of people who were screwed over in this game,” Weitz said. “I hope this opens up a pathway for them as well.”

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