Legalizing Recreational Marijuana – Could NOLA’s Disadvantaged Communities Benefit?

Photo Credit: Miloslav Hamřík

Knowing your product, knowing your client, and knowing how to sell. Whether a multi-level marketer, a business sales rep, or a neighborhood drug dealer: having strong sales ability has often proved a powerful and admirable skill. However, the business of selling drugs has been considered illegal activity. Any of its “salesmen” have been labeled criminals rather than entrepreneurs.

The world is changing. Interestingly enough, new legislation has provided a paradigm shift in selling drugs as marijuana increases in acceptability. Previously considered “dirty” money – the selling of cannabis is now emerging as a legal, billion dollar, glamorous industry most accessible to white, wealthy entrepreneurs.

Does acceptance via legalization forgive past transgressions? What happens to the people who have records for possessing cannabis? Will recreational use be made legal in Louisiana? Could NOLA’s poor communities benefit from legalizing the very product that created over policing and criminalization in their neighborhoods? Is there a chance that legalization could have the power to further incarcerate disadvantaged New Orleans communities?

Louisiana has long held the world record for incarceration rates, recently sliding second only to Oklahoma. A great majority of the arrests are due to nonviolent offenses, such as drug marijuana possession. In Louisiana (2016):

  • Black people were 2.9 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite evidence that black and white people use marijuana at similar rates
  • Black adults comprised 30.6% of the adult population, 53.7% of adults arrested, and 67.5% of adults in prison

For several decades, dating back to The War on Drugs, African American communities have been disproportionately profiled and targeted for felony convictions. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics suggests:

“The arrest and incarceration data show that the War on Drugs had a significantly much greater negative effect on blacks and Hispanics than whites, making the Drug War even more shameful for its devastating and disproportionate adverse effects on America’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged populations.”

Neighborhoods in Louisiana, such as Baton Rouge and Gretna, are statistical examples of black communities disproportionately targeted, policed, and jailed. A great number of these arrests have to do with the possession of marijuana. The result, amongst a host of additional issues, are higher incarcerations rates, joblessness for felony convictions, and a perpetuance of communal neglect. Despite the previous conditions, there is a potential for Louisiana to legalize a product that has a history of criminalizing a significant portion of its residents. Louisiana joins one of 33 states to legalize medical marijuana. Louisiana has yet to legalize recreational use. Far fewer states (ten) have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

Could the state of Louisiana benefit from the recreational legalization of cannabis? It is possible to learn from California’s lead as it journeys through the challenges of legalization. Being the first to do so, California legalized medical marijuana over 20 years ago (1996); recreational use was legalized in California through Proposition 64 in 2016. A seminar hosted by the California Urban Partnership highlighted efforts made in advancing equity in marijuana policy. The following major points were addressed:

  • The California marijuana industry is projected to be $6.7 billion in 2020.
  • There has been a transfer of wealth, with marijuana once being a lucrative underground economy to a now multi-billion dollar legal industry.
  • Across the state of California, exorbitant licensing fees are required for entering the business, legally (a licensing fee in Sacramento is approximately $45k; higher for areas such as Los Angeles).
  • When cities raise revenue from marijuana, they also increase the law enforcement budget. Many believe the legalization of marijuana requires more law enforcement, imprisoning anyone who chooses illegal routes to sell marijuana. Public officials popularize the “crackdown” on illegal businesses – presenting a new way of criminalizing marijuana. This behavior perpetuates marijuana policy as a driver of mass incarceration.

It is probable that Louisiana, too, would benefit from the economic prosperity of legalizing marijuana. However, would Louisiana also partake in licensing fees that would limit certain communities from partaking in the industry? The world’s most aggressive incarcerator – would Louisiana take the proceeds from the marijuana industry and dump them into being an even greater warden of black and brown residents?

New Orleans public defender, Danny Engelberg, has spent the past 13+ years working on behalf of poor and underserved communities. Eleven of those years have been spent serving with Orleans Public Defenders. Currently Chief of Trials, Engelberg oversees the trials division – consisting of staff attorneys, investigators, social workers, and client advocates. His team represents approximately 20 thousand people a year. Engelberg can attest, according to data from the MacArthur Criminal Safety and Justice Grant, “one of the biggest racial disparities in arrests is for marijuana arrests.” Engelberg further states, “marijuana is used disproportionately as a reason to justify a stop, justify searching and ramping up other charges against people.”

In the New Orleans communities that Engelberg serves, legalizing recreational marijuana would, in fact, grant a small measure of relief to historic injustices. He says, “coming from a place of extreme injustice on the marijuana laws where we have clients like Bernard Noble who are sentenced to years and years for two joints – I would welcome [legalization] so that there’s no more Bernard Noble’s. But I think that just because it gets us out of extreme injustice, it doesn’t cure the everyday injustice.”

It is the everyday injustices that have the greatest potential to make recreational legalization a continued burden for poor communities. Depending on the future costs for necessities, such as licensing – if poor New Orleans communities fail to be able to afford the startup costs for cannabis, they are potentially re-engaging in the underground economy. It is possible that, like California, Louisiana would invest in a larger presence of law enforcement tasked with regulating legal pathways.

The state of Louisiana’s conscientiousness with offering business assistance to disadvantaged communities could prove advantageous. The California Urban Partnership advocates for ways they could participate in the wealth generated in the legalization of marijuana. Efforts include allocating a percentage of permits/licenses to these communities, establishing loan funds, and removing employment and ownership barriers (such as fees and criminal records). Tax revenues accrued through legal marijuana sales can also be invested in communities through programs that offer substance abuse services. Louisiana could also support youth development in the communities most impacted by criminalization.

Overall, there is an undoubted potential economic benefit from Louisiana legalizing marijuana for recreational use. However, disadvantaged communities will likely see the challenges typically experienced in starting a business while also experiencing the weight of a history that has criminalized any of their associations with the product.

Nicole Nixon is a dedicated wife and mother who values leadership and business. Motivated by her husband and her son, she is vested in the empowerment and positive commercialization of black men in America. If you enjoyed this piece, you might want to check out her tribute to New Orleans rapper Young Greatness or her other articles here.

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