Chaney Turner discussing how presidential candidates’ platforms on weed justice informed their vote during an interview with The Root in downtown Oakland on March 2, 2020.
Chaney Turner discussing how presidential candidates’ platforms on weed justice informed their vote during an interview with The Root in downtown Oakland on March 2, 2020.
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr/The Root

OAKLAND, Calif.—Chaney Turner has already voted in California’s primary and said that the person who got their vote was most likely to liberalize America’s federal marijuana policies to empower black cannabis entrepreneurs.

Turner (whose pronouns are they/them/their) and I are in downtown Oakland at the Make Westing bar, which is located in an area where much of the city’s black activism around marijuana justice started. Gentrification and economic racism has shut out those black activists from benefiting from their work, though. They point to several buildings where cannabis businesses started, but that black people do not run.

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California is known as a liberal state politically and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are polling well here. Turner would not tell The Root who they voted for, but said that neither of the candidates are addressing how taxation of legal cannabis is hurting black people who want to use or sell it legally.

“If we were to go to one of the dispensaries down the street, an eighth would run you about $75 after taxes,” they said. “People are going to the weed man [because it’s cheaper]. People are still going to the legacy market also known as the black market. So all of the money that these are projecting that they would get from cannabis sales they are actually losing because of the taxes. Dispensaries are still getting business from people who can afford the high taxes from tourism. But regular folks like you see walking down the street here still got the hook up.”

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California was ahead of most states when it comes to cannabis legalization. The state legalized medical marijuana in 1996 through Proposition 215. Oakland residents voted in 2004 for Measure Z, making small cannabis possession the lowest priority for law enforcement. The problem, though, is that Oakland is Ground Zero for casualties of Richard Nixon’s disastrous war on drugs.

Black people make up just 23 percent of Oakland’s population, but were 77 percent of the cannabis street arrests in 2015, according to City Lab. Oakland is trying to make amends for this through its cannabis equity program, which centers racial justice initiatives like providing zero-interest loans and top priority for marijuana business licenses for black and brown folks arrested for cannabis-related offenses. Nationally, however, equity justice programs aren’t working, as licenses still go to white people with the financial resources to start cannabis businesses.

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Here in Oakland, there are only two black-owned cannabis businesses, according to Turner. Warren’s and Sanders’ plans include a racial justice component, but the challenge for the next Democratic president will be to ensure that the federal government does not undermine local efforts to decriminalize cannabis use and entrepreneurship.

Federally, cannabis use and sales are still illegal.

Keep in mind that former Vice President Joe Biden, who is expected to do well today, feels marijuana is a gateway drug (comments he later walked back after facing criticisms) and has the least progressive plan of the remaining viable candidates. Of all of the issues voters have been considering here in California and other Super Tuesday states, marijuana justice should be a top priority. The next president will have a great deal of power to direct federal agencies such as the Department of Justice to pursue progressive marijuana policy at the national level. Having the right racial analysis on those approaches will be essential.

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Amber Senter, a cannabis justice advocate here in Oakland told me that her concerns about legalization at the federal level may do little for black people if racial equity is not a top priority of whichever Democrat wins the White House.

“If we legalize and federal banking is approved, what does that mean for cannabis in general? That means that folks will have access to banking, which is important. But what does that mean for black people? It doesn’t mean much,” Senter said. “If black people in regular businesses, regular entrepreneurs with a 750 credit score can’t get a loan from their bank, how does that look for blacks in cannabis? It doesn’t look great. We really need to take this opportunity to do some reparative justice. There is no restoration because we never had justice in the first place. ”

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There are 415 delegates to be won out of California, the most of any of the Super Tuesday states; more than 1,300 delegates are at stake overall today. California moved up its primary date from June to Super Tuesday because its large delegate count, arguably, did not have as much influence then as it will today.. Sanders lost this state in a heartbreaking defeat to Hillary Clinton four years ago. The state was considered to be his last hope at winning the nomination. But today, he is leading in the polls and expected to win convincingly.

Black and Latinx voters are expected to play an enormous role in who is successful today with states like North Carolina, Texas and Alabama with large black and brown voters that will give us an idea of who they see as an electable candidate. More particularly, this will be the day for Biden to shore up the black support his campaign has been waiting on after Iowa and New Hampshire went to Sanders. We’ll also see if Sanders’ success with Latinx voters will continue after he won over a large number of them in Nevada.

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Though, as the primary cycle narrows down to the best of the rest after more than 20 mostly white men threw their hats in the race, issues like marijuana justice cannot be seen as a minor issue—especially since so many black people in cities like Oakland feel they are still being left behind.

In my hourlong conversation with Turner, close to a dozen people came to our table to greet them. They say folks call them “the Mayor” because of their cannabis activism. It’s a title that humbles them. It tells them that they are part of the community and people see them as one of the leaders of it.

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When we get back to their views of Warren and Bernie—the two candidates they prefer over the rest of the Democratic presidential field—Turner feels that both need to do a better job of reaching out to black people in the industry because much of the work they want to do through their policies is already being done.

If anybody running for president wants to help end the war on drugs, they need to talk to the black people who have been disproportionately impacted by it.

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“In the industry, you have a lot of excellent organizations and people who have been at the forefront of cannabis policy and advocacy, so there is no need to recreate the wheel,” Turner said. “Invite those people into the conversation and get their views and perspective on how we can have an equitable cannabis industry if they are trying to make (legalization) federal.”

Clarification, 3/4/2020, 9:56 am: Chaney Turner’s preferred pronouns are they/them/their. The story has been updated to reflect the change.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.

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