Budget Hawks Threaten Hopes for Cannabis Equity in San Diego

February 5, 2020

In San Diego, the second-largest city in California, marijuana is big business. But only people with the big bucks can afford to open storefront dispensaries after the state legalized in November 2016. If you are Black, research shows you were nearly six times more likely than white people to be arrested in the city for marijuana before legalization. This criminalization results in lifelong consequences in everything from housing to employment to education—let alone opening a million dollar cannabis dispensary.

The research in question was conducted by the Mid-City Community Advocacy Network, released in August 2019. It found young people and people of color in San Diego were disproportionately targeted by marijuana arrests in the five-year period before legalization took effect. Latinx people were more than twice as likely as whites to be arrested for pot; Pacific Islanders nearly four times as likely, and Black people nearly six times as likely.

“Areas in central and southeastern San Diego have been particularly impacted by the criminalization of cannabis,” the report said. “If the city of San Diego hopes to use cannabis tax revenues to promote equity, it should invest revenue in these communities.”

Worse still, data since 2017 show that while marijuana arrests in San Diego have decreased overall, people of color are still disproportionately targeted. For example, Black people make up less than 6 percent of San Diego but 16 percent of citations for juveniles and 29 percent for adults.

San Diego lawmakers are proposing a program to help these populations. City Council members Chris Ward and Monica Montgomery want to create a cannabis social equity program that provides funding, resources, and other opportunities to people victimized by marijuana prohibition. For models, they point to city programs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland.

But more importantly, the state government in Sacramento is offering matching funds to support local cannabis equity programs. Last year, the state of California gave out $10 million in grants. Ward and Montgomery say their city should not refuse this opportunity.

“We are trying to use some of this new opportunity through legalized recreational marijuana and some of the revenues that come from that industry to be able to reinvest in communities that have been harmed from the criminalization of marijuana in history,” said Council member Ward to KPBS.

The Council members have not created a concrete policy yet, but they ideally want an equity program to support opportunities for marginalized groups to become cannabis business owners, and fund youth programs, workforce development, and violence prevention. This would all be funded in part by the $17 million in cannabis tax revenues they expect the city to raise this year.

San Diego would likely have to revise local land-use rules that restrict how many dispensaries can operate in the city. Currently, no more than four shops are allowed per Council district. Each shop must be at least 1,000 feet from the nearest school, park, or church. The city has already maxed out almost every other cannabis license category it can give out, with only 13 retail licenses for stores left to issue.

The Council voted 4-0 as recently as September to direct the city attorney’s office to draft a cannabis equity proposal, but the program’s future looks uncertain. “An equity study is needed and requested to analyze available data related to disparities in the cannabis industry and to provide policy and funding options to guide the funding of a Cannabis Equity program,” said Councilmember Ward when he announced his 2021 city budget priorities earlier this month. Montgomery also included the equity program in her budget priorities.

But the same day as those announcements, the City Council unanimously approved its 2021 budget priorities with no mention of cannabis equity.

Worse still, San Diego is on the cusp of a budget crisis. According to analysis released in November, the city will face a nearly $84 million budget deficit in 2021, with deficits for all of the next five years until 2025. Mayor Kevin Faulconer opposes the equity program, both because he wants cannabis tax revenues to cover the cost of enforcing cannabis laws, and because he warns deficits will increase even more if money is diverted away.

Many questions about San Diego’s equity proposal remain unanswered. Until a proposal is released, we cannot have a conversation about what benefits it would provide, what that would cost, and how the city or state could fund it. But what remains certain is that if lawmakers take no action, those who control and profit from the legal cannabis market in San Diego will continue to be far wealthier and whiter than the people who live there.

Image of students painting a Schools not Prisons mural in San Diego from the Mid-City CAN via Facebook.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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