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Fresno’s elected leaders need to ensure equity in cannabis tax spending

In this Jan. 6, 2018 photo, an employee stocks cannabis at a store shortly before its first day of recreational marijuana sales in San Francisco. Fresno is gearing up to license dispensaries for medical marijuana sales.
In this Jan. 6, 2018 photo, an employee stocks cannabis at a store shortly before its first day of recreational marijuana sales in San Francisco. Fresno is gearing up to license dispensaries for medical marijuana sales. AP file

Fresno’s 20-year delay in licensing medical cannabis outlets is nearly over. While much of the the state is moving onto recreational sales without us, at least now our city’s patients and clients are free from fear of arrest when securing prescriptions central to their well-being.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for sellers of the sought-after drug, people who throughout two decades of Fresno’s “dry county” status continued to provide it to cancer victims, long-term pain sufferers, people with chronic conditions, mental health clients and more.

Those sellers are losing their businesses. Many more are in prison, disproportionately so, according to The Sentencing Project’s 2017 annual report:

“Today, people of color make up 37 percent of the U.S. population but 67 percent of the prison population. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Hispanic men are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic white men.”

The harsh impacts of economic loss and imprisonment have plunged like boulders deep into the pool of our community for generations.

The onslaught began officially in 1982 with the war on drugs. Harsh sentencing laws by state and federal government compounded the crisis like a force multiplier in a military attack. The Sentencing Project reports the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses increased more than tenfold, from 40,900 in 1980 to 450,345 in 2017.

And it is within this context of a targeted yet resilient community peopled with entrepreneurs of every age and description that Fresno has the opportunity to do something profoundly good.

This will rely on equity. Not the financial equity one has through home buying, but the social equity a community builds by investing in its least advantaged people, supporting job creation and small business development, including legal roles within the marijuana industry.

As the city plans for industrial hubs of marijuana processing, testing, packaging, and distribution linked to more than a dozen city-licensed dispensaries, with a grander vision of becoming the cannabis production center for the western U.S., now is also the time to make grand plans for the families living in our damaged neighborhoods.

Funded by 10 percent of the city’s cannabis sales tax income, the equity program will be overseen by a committee of Fresno residents appointed by the mayor and council. Unfortunately, our city leaders do not appear to have a clear understanding of equity and of the urgent need to first have a well-informed plan in place.

Our hope is that Fresno’s leaders will take this opportunity to learn from the mistakes of communities which have already experimented with equity funding; our decades of delay might turn out to provide us with that one small advantage.

Our greatest fear is the money will be misused for law enforcement. Such efforts have been tried elsewhere under the umbrella of civic engagement, but served mostly to extend a localized war on drugs. This perverts the California Cannabis Equity Act’s intentional call for pro-community investment programs.

Another concern is staffing. Understaffed efforts elsewhere have led to costly bureaucratic delays. Equity partners’ chances at securing a place in the industry have been hampered. Unmonitored large investors can exploit the demographics of small business partners to secure licenses but avoid binding, enforceable commitments to equitable practices.

Based on our review of other cities’ efforts, it’s clear the key to building a better equity component starts with a transparent process, one that directly involves people from communities to be most affected by the program; this requires funding for inclusive civic engagement, which is key to sustaining the gains this program brings to impacted communities.

For example, the city’s plan for screening license applications should be completely open to public oversight and review. Opening up the country’s most productive agricultural county to commercial marijuana production means the big-money investors are here, too.

Without a community-driven, transparent equity plan in place, the needs of our impacted neighborhoods — and the economic opportunities available there — will be forgotten. We stand ready to help Fresno lead the state and nation in developing an inclusive, sustainable equity program designed to improve lives and neighborhoods.

Fresno residents Cesar Casamayor and Gidai Maaza are co-founders of the Fresno People’s Dispensary, an affiliate of the National People’s Dispensary based in Oakland.

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