In 2016, California passed Proposition 64, an act that followed in the steps of states like Colorado and Oregon by legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for adults 21 and over. With this decision came questions of how the state government should profit from the industry, and what it should do with all the people in prison for marijuana related charges.
The legal cannabis industry is massively profitable. According to figures released by the state, in the first year of legal sales, California made $345 million in tax revenue from this industry alone. With money like this, the state could specifically increase funding for sectors desperately in need of money like public education or homelessness. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The major issue is the past criminalization of cannabis and how it primarily targeted low-income Black and brown communities.
It’s no question that the War on Drugs led to the over policing of Black and brown communities, leaving hundreds of thousands in prison for seemingly minor offenses. The possession of small amounts of weed could result in years behind bars. Sometimes people didn’t even have cannabis on them, but police could get away with planting drugs and sending people, primarily Black men, to prison for absolutely nothing.
For the California government to start ethically profiting off of marijuana taxes, first some steps must be taken. Around the state, many previous convictions are being expunged from criminal records, but this doesn’t go far enough. Anybody with marijuana related charges needs to have their circumstances reevaluated and their charges either dropped or reduced to misdemeanors. No person should have a felony for selling, possessing, or growing marijuana alone. Once situations are reevaluated, people currently serving time should have modified sentences, and many should be released from prison. To fund this process, the state can use some of the tax revenue it is currently collecting from legal cannabis sales. On top of modifying criminal records, the state government should provide pathways for historically criminalized communities to join the legal industry. It’s concerning when the whole industry is run by rich white people, because they rarely faced any of the same persecution for possessing or selling in the past. It’s as if the cannabis industry is undergoing gentrification. Black and brown folks should have equal and easy opportunity to legally sell weed as the white people currently controlling much of the industry.
The state of California is starting to make positive changes, but it needs to do more with its profit from legal marijuana sales to be morally acceptable. Profit can help, but it needs to come after major reforms that provide opportunity and expunge criminal records. If this cannot happen, the state government has made a major mistake that will leave many with a bad taste in their mouth for decades to come. It’s a long and expensive process, but it is necessary.