Californian Cannabis Tax Revenues Are Used to Boost Police Budgets

July 23, 2020

How are tax revenues from legal marijuana being spent in California, the nation’s largest state? To a large degree, they are not going towards helping the poor, Black and Brown neighborhoods most harmed by the War on Drugs. They are going to the police.

The organizations Youth Forward and Getting It Right From the Start co-produced a report on 28 Californian cities that legalized recreational marijuana sales since 2016. (Roughly two-thirds of cities and towns still ban sales, despite state-level legalization.) Released back in April, the report’s importance has been amplified by intervening events, and the ensuing debates around policing and its funding.

It found that in three years, 23 of the 28 cities increased their police budgets by at least 10 percent, as of the 2019-2020 fiscal year. Eight cities saw an increase of at least 25 percent.

We’re not just talking about rural, Republican-run towns: These numbers include the state’s two largest cities, Los Angeles and San Diego. Of all 28 cities studied, the average increase in police budgets was 19 percent over three years.

The report highlights the example of Greenfield, a small but fast-growing city in Monterey County. Before legalization, Greenfield spent $2.3 million on its police department of about 16 full-time employees. Its police budget has since grown 56 percent to $3.6 million, and the department has more than doubled its workforce, to about 34 full-time employees.

As the report explains, California law allows both the state and local governments to collect taxes on marijuana business. But in almost all of the cities studied, cannabis tax money goes into the city’s general fund instead of being saved for a specific use. Police spending in these cities represents, on average, almost two out of every five dollars spent.

And many of the police departments in these cities have created new units specifically to enforce the new marijuana laws. San Diego prioritizes its cannabis tax money for “proactively cracking down on illegal operators.” Its neighbor, Los Angeles, spends millions each year on “investigating and enforcing laws relative to illegal cannabis businesses.”

Filter has previously reported on the new war being waged on illicit cannabis businesses and growers all across California. An irony is that some of these businesses were legal medical cannabis providers before 2016, but couldn’t earn a recreational license under the new system.

Others have come up against barriers to earning a license in cities like San Diego and Los Angeles, where legal businesses are largely white-owned and require significant start-up funding. An equity initiative to support Black and Brown cannabis businesses in San Diego has stalled because the mayor prefers cannabis tax money to go to the police.

And a similar initiative in Los Angeles has for years been haunted by incompetency and under-funding. Filter reported in 2019 about how $10 million that was supposed to go to LA’s cannabis equity program instead went to police overtime pay—so they could arrest people for cannabis.

Race is a clear factor in all of this new cannabis enforcement. San Diego still disproportionately arrests Black and Hispanic people for marijuana, even after legalization. In Los Angeles, marijuana arrest rates for both groups have increased since legalization.

The Youth Forward and Getting It Right From the Start report did also show some ways that the state, counties and cities are spending cannabis tax money to benefit poor, Black and Brown residents. The state’s Community Reinvestment Grant Program paid out $28 million in 2019 to support programs for employment, physical and mental health, and people returning home from prison.

“As encouraging as they are,” the authors wrote, “such efforts represent just the tip of the iceberg of what could be achieved if California cities and counties were to invest cannabis revenues appropriately.”


Photo by Tomás Del Coro via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is an editorial fellow at Filter.

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