Why we started and where we’re at

In 2017, when a group of us came together to launch Youth Forward, we held the assumption that in the near future, the state would collect significant new tax revenues from the cannabis industry. The voters had approved Prop 64 just a few months earlier. We wanted to see if we could influence how the state would spend the millions of new revenues. We wanted those revenues to be invested in supporting healing and prevention in the communities of color most impacted by the War on Drugs.

We also assumed that post-legalization, the marijuana industry would grow dramatically and would come to resemble a new tobacco industry, with political influence, sophisticated marketing techniques and new product development. We figured that the business of weed would change quickly from Mom and Pop to Big Cannabis. 

Two years later, these assumptions have proven to be true. The Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GOBiz) will announce its first round of grant-making of $9.6 million in the next few weeks. These new dollars will go to nonprofits and health departments to provide services for people living in those communities that were most impacted by the War on Drugs. The Community Reinvestment Grants Program is one example of where government is doing the right thing by investing these revenues with an equity strategy. In the coming years this grant program will grow to $50 million annually. In collaboration with the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, we brought together over 70 community-based organizations from around the state to bring forward a set of recommendations to shape the GOBiz funding program. We were pleased to see most of our ideas appear in the final Request For Proposal. 

In addition to the GOBiz program, the Department of Health Care Services is preparing to launch a $20 million grant program to fund youth substance abuse prevention services in early 2021. This fund represents one chunk of a total of $119 million that is in this year’s state budget for youth services. As with the GOBIz program, these dollars will grow over time as the state collects more tax revenue. Unfortunately, when Governor Newsom and his team made decisions about how to spend the new funds for youth services, they did not follow a clear equity perspective and have yet to develop a coherent strategy to address youth substance abuse prevention and treatment.  We are currently working with many organizations around the state to bring forward recommendations to increase the impact of these new dollars. 

While we have engaged significantly in the debate over state cannabis tax revenues, we are not making much progress in regard to local cannabis tax revenues. Over one hundred local governments are collecting revenues from local taxes on marijuana businesses and for the most part those funds are going to support police, fire, and general city services. Local governments are generally not using those new funds to support prevention, healing and public health in neighborhoods that have been overcriminalized. Because law enforcement makes up the biggest part of a local government budget, much of these new funds are going to support and grow law enforcement. In our view, this is a misuse of these new funds and an insult. For decades law enforcement used minor marijuana offenses, including possession, to send people to prison. A significant percentage of these revenues should be reinvested in those communities that lost fathers, mothers, and grandparents to mass incarceration.

We also predicted that we would see a rapid emergence of corporatized cannabis. Across the country, investors are holding conferences to strategize on how to build a larger industry. Franchises are emerging. People, primarily white people, are making money and are poised to make a lot more. Even with equity programs in a handful of local cities and some state funding for business equity, the new wealth generated by legal cannabis is largely bypassing communities of color.

As the industry grows, it is developing more high potency products that increase the risk of addiction and mental health problems. In my city of Sacramento, we now have billboards on our major streets advertising dispensaries. For the last several months we’ve had one billboard in numerous locations that features a young woman of color with the message “Feel Better.” For all of us who have fought the predatory practices of the tobacco industry, this kind of marketing wakes up our scar tissue! The industry continues to market cannabis as a health product that can cure all ills. While cannabis does have medical uses for certain conditions, we have very little actual research to guide usage, What is clear is that cannabis use is harmful to adolescents and pregnant women. While the industry is spending big money marketing its products, those of us in the public health community have few resources to counteract the deluge. We are David facing a Goliath.

Prop 64 has had a big positive impact on the decriminalization of marijuana. As important have been the provisions in the measure that allow people with prior marijuana convictions to have their records cleared or reduced. We worked with Assemblymember Rob Bonta in 2018 to pass legislation that will require all counties to proactively change records based on Prop 64 by 2022. Thousands of people will benefit from this opportunity. Last year, we got a head start here in Sacramento and worked with our District Attorney and others to start of the process of expunging records for about 6,000 Sacramentans.

Going forward, we need to continue to grow awareness and build people power to seize opportunities created by the growing revenues from cannabis taxes, and to fight against the predatory practices of the industry. Now is the time to act.  In 2017 and much of 2018 there were relatively few people paying attention to these issues. It often felt like the story of the frog in the pot in which the water is gradually getting warmer. Now in mid 2019 the water is boiling. 

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