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Cannabis' Big Minority Problem 

Wednesday, Mar 30 2016

Tikisha Ong wants to change the world. The East Bay 30-something wants to become something rarer than a Silicon Valley unicorn: a black person in a position of ownership in the medical cannabis industry.

No honest conversation about drugs can neglect race. If decades of blatantly biased arrest and incarceration statistics, the odd coincidence of the crack epidemic and then poverty ravaging once-middle-class black neighborhoods, and clear and cogent arguments like Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow did not convince you of the direct connection between drug prohibition and white supremacy, the recent revelation in Harper's that the drug war was cooked up by Nixon administration operatives specifically to "disrupt" blacks and the left made this undeniable. And thus far, the "Green Rush" of economic opportunity presented by the legitimization of marijuana has been lily-white.

Fewer than one percent of the roughly 3,500 cannabis retail outlets in America are owned by black people, Buzzfeed recently reported. Last winter, a marijuana investor summit in San Francisco was deemed "the most white and male convention you could go to" — by one of its organizers. Of the owners of the city's 28 medical marijuana dispensaries, only a handful — one Jordanian-American, one Palestinian-American, one Asian and a Latino — are non-white, according to an SF Weekly count. (The city — which saw 8,000 Latinos leave the Mission in the past decade and the black population dip below 5 percent, leaving one of the smallest black populations of any major American city — keeps no demographic data on its marijuana industry.) In cannabis circles, the place you are most apt to see a black person — aside from purchasing product at the counter — is working security at the door.

"Predominately, it's an older, white male industry," says Ong, a polished former corporate spokesperson who claims to have been involved in the cannabis industry in various ways "most of her life," dating from when her military veteran father self-medicated with cannabis to treat PTSD and, later, cancer. (In case her name throws you, one of her parents is black, the other Chinese).

"This is a disparity that needs to be changed," she adds. "African-Americans need a place in this industry."

To secure such a place — and be, quite possibly, only the second black dispensary owner in the Bay Area; SF Weekly can name only one more, in Oakland — Ong last year filed an application to operate a medical cannabis dispensary in a long-vacant commercial storefront on Sickles Avenue in the Outer Mission, a few blocks away from the Daly City border.

She's also enlisting some help: On March 11, Rev. Amos Brown, head of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, wrote an open letter to the Planning Commission officials who will approve or reject Ong's plan.

In his letter, Brown called marijuana "yet another lucrative industry growing without [sic] almost no input from our community — another table we are not invited to sit at."

The problem is that this is not just a race issue. It's also a neighborhood zoning issue — and not even the venerable NAACP stands a chance against the power of neighborhood opposition, of which there is plenty in the Outer Mission.

Laws passed more than a decade ago restrict legal medical cannabis businesses to a select few areas in a select few neighborhoods. Repeated pleas to open up this "Green Zone" — including from the Planning Commission — have gone unheeded at the Board of Supervisors, where marijuana is still more a liability for a politician than anything else.

Stretches of the Excelsior and the Outer Mission, where there are many vacant storefronts, are in the Green Zone. There are also three dispensaries along a mile-long stretch of Mission Street between Silver Avenue and the Daly City border, with a few more on Ocean Avenue. But the most vocal locals say they have enough legal weed.

"This is not a race thing," says Joelle Kenealey, president of the Outer Mission Merchants and Residents Association, which is opposing the dispensary (and successfully defeated the last dispensary to try to open in the neighborhood in 2014). "She could bring any other business — a bakery, a pet food store, something we need out here. We are pretty much good on [dispensaries] ... we already have three."

Ong's hearing at the Planning Commission has been delayed until July. A recent neighborhood meeting called to discuss her dispensary plan drew a standing-room-only crowd, nearly all of whom were opposed to the idea, according to Kenealey. It also drew a political hopeful seeking to represent the area on the Board of Supervisors, who will likely use cannabis as a campaign issue.

It's notoriously difficult to open up a new medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco — so difficult that out-of-town business people with deep pockets are buying buildings with existing dispensaries in them in order to avoid the planning process. (Think about that: buying S.F. real estate is preferable to attempting to navigate the approval process.) Anyone still interested is advised to set aside close to a million dollars — cash needed to pay lawyers, architects, permit fees, and up to a year's worth of rent on your would-be storefront while you wait to see if angry neighbors torpedo your business plan.

It's not clear how cannabis's race problem can be corrected. At the state level, advocates like the NAACP have demanded that licenses for commercial cannabis activity should not be denied to applicants with nonviolent, low-level drug offenses. In the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last fall, they achieved that. Fixing the rest of America's race-related drug problems will require a plan that thus far nobody has crafted.


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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