OAKLAND, Calif. — Andre Shavers was sentenced to five years on felony probation after authorities burst into the house where he was living in one of Oakland’s most heavily policed neighborhoods and found a quarter ounce of marijuana.
After the 2007 raid, Shavers couldn’t leave the state without permission. He was subject to police searches at any time. He walked to the corner store one night for maple syrup and came back in a police car. Officers wanted to search his home again.
All the while, cannabis storefronts flourished elsewhere in a state where medical marijuana was authorized in 1996.
Now Oakland and other cities and states with legal pot are trying to make up for the toll marijuana enforcement took on minorities by giving them a better shot at joining the growing marijuana industry. African-Americans made up 83 percent of cannabis arrests in Oakland in the year Shavers was arrested.
“I was kind of robbed of a lot for five years,” Shavers said. “It’s almost like, what do they call that? Reparations. That’s how I look at it. If this is what they’re offering, I’m going to go ahead and use the services.”
The efforts’ supporters say legalization is enriching white people but not brown and black people who have been arrested for cannabis crimes at far greater rates than whites.
Recreational pot is legal in eight states and the nation’s capital. California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada approved ballot questions in November. They join Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia, which acted earlier. Twenty-nine states permit medical marijuana.
Massachusetts’ ballot initiative was the first to insert specific language encouraging participation in the industry by those “disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement.” The law does not specify how that would be accomplished.
In Ohio, a 2016 medical pot law included setting aside 15 percent of marijuana-related licenses for minority businesses. In Pennsylvania, applicants for cultivation and dispensing permits must spell out how they will achieve racial equity.
Florida lawmakers agreed last year to reserve one of three future cultivation licenses for a member of the Florida Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association.
There have been setbacks as well. The Maryland General Assembly adjourned last month without acting on a bill to guarantee a place for minority-owned businesses after the Legislative Black Caucus complained that no black-owned companies were awarded any of the state’s initial 15 medical marijuana cultivation licenses.
There’s no solid data on how many minorities own U.S. cannabis businesses or how many seek a foothold in the industry. But diversity advocates say the industry is overwhelmingly white.
The lack of diversity, they say, can be traced to multiple factors: rules that disqualify people with prior convictions from operating legal cannabis businesses; lack of access to banking services and capital to finance startup costs; and state licensing systems that tend to favor established or politically connected applicants.
In 2010, blacks constituted 14 percent of the U.S. population but made up more than 36 percent of all arrests for pot possession, according to an American Civil Liberties Union study released in 2013. The report found African-Americans were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for cannabis possession.
That study did not report Latino arrests because the FBI data on which it was based did not track Hispanics. But a 2016 study by the ACLU of California and the Drug Policy Alliance found Latinos were cited at 1.4 times the rate of white people for marijuana infractions in Los Angeles and 1.7 times the rate in Fresno.