Calif.’s Recreational-Weed Bill Could Be a Game Changer

High Society: Proposition 64’s proposal to resentence or clear criminal charges related to weed could have a major impact, particularly for black drug offenders.

Welcome to California highway sign with marijuana leaf

Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series that looks at the growing legal marijuana industry and its effect on the black community.

Sue Taylor, 69, is a force of nature. The retired Catholic-school principal and grandmother of three is also one of the first African-American senior citizen owners of a cannabis dispensary. She’s based in California, a state that seems to be on track to legalize recreational marijuana this fall. “You wouldn’t believe the challenges we’ve been going through for over 10 years. There are some [white] dispensaries opening up in L.A. that don’t even have a license, and they’re opening anyway and nothing is done,” says Taylor, whose iCANN Health Center, a medical dispensary, is set to open in Berkeley in January 2017. “We had to do it legally because we’re African American!”

In May, Taylor beat out several other finalists in Berkeley’s competition to award a new permit for a marijuana business. She partnered with growers at the Bay Area marijuana-delivery service CRAFT, and the dispensary will focus on seniors. Some members of the Berkeley City Council said that racial equality was an important part of their decision.

“It’s minority owned, minority supported, in a minority neighborhood. That’s the key for making them No. 1 for me,” Councilman Laurie Capitelli said, according to Berkeleyside.

Taylor says that people of color are still having trouble getting into the legal marijuana market in California, even though for 20 years it has had a highly unregulated, lenient medical-marijuana program.

“Money is No. 1. Usually, big white boys come with money—some have been growing illegally for years and have this money buried or storied someplace else … they have all this excess money, so they can come and have the money to pay for the expensive permits and all of those things,” Taylor explains, adding that her son Jamal got her into the business by asking her to help him open a dispensary.

“You let me and my black son try and open a dispensary anywhere in California—the rules just aren’t the same,” she continues. “I said to somebody, ‘Yeah, we could have opened up along with 1,500 whites, but they would have picked us up! They would have said, ‘There are some black people over there; I’m sure they must be doing something wrong. Let’s go check.’”

But now that voters seem set to approve legalizing recreational marijuana this November, under Proposition 64, Taylor thinks that will change and more people of color will be able to get into the weed business.

“They will feel more free—this is key—people would feel like we’re not about to go to jail for this because it’s legal now,” Taylor says.

She also thinks if California legalizes recreational marijuana, it will be a huge push toward getting weed legalized in other states across the nation.

“It is coming now, I think. Look how many states have legalized already,” Taylor says, referring to the 25 states and Washington, D.C., that have already legalized medical marijuana. “It’s really going to help seniors. With the passing of Proposition 64—many seniors are on from 15 to 26 pills a day. I go in and tell them how cannabis can eliminate half or all of those harmful addictive pills that are really deteriorating their health.”

Criminal Records Could Be Cleared

One of the things in California’s Proposition 64 that excites advocates is that it would make people serving time for activities that would become legal or subject to lesser penalties eligible for resentencing. Not only could resentenced people who are currently in jail get a shot at probation, but those who have already served their time could apply to the courts to have their criminal records changed.

“It defelonizes a lot of minor offenses that heretofore have always been felonies—cultivation, if you grow even one marijuana plant,” says Dale Gieringer, director of the advocacy group California NORML. “Having an ounce in your pocket, possession with intent to sell, would all be kicked down. … It gives felony offenders the chance to clear their records or have them reduced to misdemeanors.”

Basically, Proposition 64 would legalize the growth, possession and use of marijuana for adults 21 or older for nonmedical purposes, with some restrictions. People would be able to smoke weed in private homes and buy it at state-licensed businesses or through delivery services.

People like Nick Kovacevich, co-founder and CEO of California-based Kush Bottles Inc., which provides packaging, branding and labeling for legal cannabis companies, think that passage of the legislation would be a game changer.