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Pot shots

Legalized marijuana sets up a showdown between federal and state law, and rewards unlikely benefactors 

Pot shots

A customer purchases marijuana at Harborside dispensary in Oakland, Calif., on Jan. 1. (Mathew Sumner/AP)

In at least four California cities, a new opportunity awaits low-income citizens convicted of certain drug crimes: a leg up on starting their very own marijuana business.

California has joined seven other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and the state began allowing sales on New Year’s Day. In some spots, hundreds of customers lined up hours before shops opened.

Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for medicinal use, and some purveyors in California obtained licenses to expand their sales to recreational use as well.

When it comes to issuing new permits, officials in Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, and San Francisco plan to give preference to a surprising group of potential marijuana entrepreneurs: those who have been convicted of drug crimes. Proponents call it restorative justice. They say that whites and blacks use marijuana at the same rate, but that authorities have arrested black citizens at a higher rate than white citizens for marijuana possession. Now that marijuana is legal in California, people convicted for possessing it in the past should be able to cash in on the benefits of the industry in the future.

“For so long, people that were black, people that were Latino, we have paid the price for this business,” City Council President Herb Wesson said at a community meeting in Los Angeles. “And as we move this into the legal realm, it is important to us that we have a piece of the action.”

Getting a piece of the action involves more than a preference on permits. Some cities also plan to give no-interest loans to those who qualify for the program. (Applicants may also include family members of drug offenders or residents of neighborhoods affected by drug trade.)

Business owners who aren’t in the program may have a better chance at getting a permit to sell marijuana if they agree to partner with an applicant or give him rent-free space to set up shop.

At least one thing may stand in the way of the plan: federal law. Since a federal statute outlaws marijuana, many banks regulated by the federal government are reluctant to give loans for starting marijuana businesses. But even if bank managers offer such loans, they’re often unwilling to give the loans to people who have been convicted of a drug crime: Even if marijuana is legal now, it wasn’t legal when former drug offenders chose to break the law.

That doesn’t mean offenders don’t need help. It’s important to give former convicts opportunities to pursue productive lives and vocations and to consider practical ways to make that possible.

But as Jason Riley of The Wall Street Journal points out, law-abiding citizens in low-income neighborhoods often have suffered from the effects of the drug trade as well, and they may not want offenders to set up shop in their communities. Riley also notes that a criminal record can prevent someone from obtaining a liquor license in California, but now could help someone get ahead in selling pot.

Meanwhile, legalization hasn’t stopped illegal activity in other states. USA Today reports drug dealers often buy marijuana in states where it’s legal and then illegally transport it across state lines to sell it for three times as much as the purchase price.

While less marijuana is flowing over the U.S. border, officials in California say cartels have increased their activity in the United States—growing pot in large quantities and selling it across state lines.

In Oregon, the state police estimate the legal marijuana market makes up just 30 percent of the state’s entire market.

What about federal law?

In 2013, President Barack Obama urged federal prosecutors to ease pursuing certain marijuana cases in states that had voted to make the drug legal. But in early January, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed that course: He said the Trump administration would use its discretion to enforce the law, even in states that passed laws in favor of selling marijuana.

That likely doesn’t mean federal agents will raid marijuana businesses in states that have legalized cannabis, but Sessions does seem to indicate the federal government won’t ignore federal law in all cases either.

It’s an interesting twist on federal vs. state politics: Conservatives often emphasize states’ rights, but in this case, a conservative attorney general is pressing federal law against state decisions. Meanwhile, left-leaning states that sometimes call for federal action on issues they care about, now insist on states’ rights when it involves a law they favor.

Some Democratic and Republican lawmakers have derided Sessions for his recent announcement, but few have pushed to change the law to decriminalize marijuana in the federal statute. Instead, they want Sessions to refrain from enforcing the law in the cases where they see fit.

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


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  • RC
    Posted: Fri, 01/19/2018 02:04 pm

    Many of these ex-drug dealers may get started, but they will get driven out of business by real entrepreneurs who know how to run a business. Few ex-drug dealers are going to grow the skills to run a successful legal business. The politicians who think small time drug dealers could possible become successful marijuana entrepreneurs must have come up with that while they were high smoking dope.

  •  Dave Waldrup's picture
    Dave Waldrup
    Posted: Wed, 01/31/2018 06:05 pm