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Creating Economic Opportunity for the Victims of the Drug War

As we turn marijuana into a legal, lucrative business, we need to make sure that minorities get a big piece of it.

As California, along with other states, moves toward decriminalizing its multibillion-dollar marijuana economy, one cannot help but notice that many of the regulations are being written by wealthy white people and for wealthy white people. This, sadly, is not surprising, but it is both wrong and a lost opportunity, given the history of the disproportionate impact of criminalization on minority communities.

As a county supervisor striving with my peers to craft sensible policy in the midst of a modern-day Gold Rush, it is my goal to ensure that the huge economic potential for legalization is shared equally with the communities that have suffered disproportionately during marijuana's criminalization: Latinos and African-Americans.

In the failed, half-century-long "war on drugs," racial minorities have endured the majority of the collateral damage. According to data from the Drug Policy Alliance, in 2014 a little over 700,000 of the 1.5 million drug arrests in the United States were for the possession or distribution of marijuana, with Latinos and African- Americans arrested and incarcerated at alarmingly higher rates than whites. In some places, racial disparities in arrests have actually been increasing over recent years, according to studies by the American Civil Liberties Union.

In my home state of California, surveys have shown that although whites use marijuana at higher rates, they are much less likely to be arrested or imprisoned for possession or distribution of cannabis than Latinos. Arrest rates range from 30 percent to 300 percent higher than for whites, depending on the locale.

It's no mystery that the price of being charged for possession of even small amounts of marijuana can lead to rippling effects in the lives of those arrested. Young people of color are targeted most frequently. A criminal charge for possession can mean the loss of federal financial aid for college and other public benefits -- a scarlet letter that could hinder a young person from access to a better-paying job.

One remedy to this inequity could come in the form of a program that is as old as the drug war, one that ironically was created under the same president, Richard Nixon. The Minority Business Development Agency, which operates under the U.S. Department of Commerce, provides benefits, guidance and access to capital and to government contracts to businesses that are owned and operated by people of color. The U.S. Small Business Administration and local governments across the country, including my own, also have their own organizations and systems in place to assist minorities in creating and building their businesses.

In my county, I am proposing that we give minority-owned businesses preference when we allocate licenses to cultivate, manufacture, research and sell marijuana -- a policy that I hope will be replicated and implemented by other local governments and states. These preferences would bring capital and business opportunities to minorities in a fast-growing commercial sector, more evenly distributing the wealth that will be created as the marijuana business moves out of the back alleys.

Although incentives like these wouldn't provide even a fraction of the reparations that our society owes to minority communities for the injustices that have occurred over the last 50 years, they would give a sense of fairness and new economic opportunities to people of color moving forward.

A Santa Cruz County, Calif., supervisor and former mayor of the city of Santa Cruz
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