Jay Bowser, who mentors kids from disadvantaged communities, was prosecuted for a marijuana crime in 2007. He’s now campaigning for a cannabis equity proposal in San Diego. / Photo by Megan Wood
Jay Bowser, who mentors kids from disadvantaged communities, was prosecuted for a marijuana crime in 2007. He’s now campaigning for a cannabis equity proposal in San Diego. / Photo by Megan Wood

Marijuana legalization was pitched to California voters in 2016 as a corrective to the war on drugs. Although nationwide studies suggest that white and black Americans consume marijuana at a similar rate, for years people of color had disproportionately landed in jail for possessing it.

But Proposition 64 didn’t abolish all marijuana crimes. The state continues to restrict how much marijuana an individual can possess and where it can be grown, brought and indulged.

Three years later, the seriousness of the crimes have changed, but there are still notable disparities when it comes to enforcement.

Data compiled by the San Diego Association of Governments and analyzed by Voice of San Diego show that while the number of arrests and tickets for marijuana crimes has decreased since 2017, the defendants are still disproportionately people of color. In San Diego, charges often fall on minority children and teens — some as young as 6 and 9 years old.

About 30 percent of the city identifies as Hispanic or Latino, but Latinos made up nearly half of all juvenile citations for marijuana between January 2017 and October 2019. Black San Diegans represent 5.5 percent of the city’s population but accounted for 16 percent of all juvenile citations and 29 percent of all adult arrests.

White residents, at the same time, represent 44 percent of the city, but accounted for 34 percent of adult arrests and 25 percent of juvenile citations.

[infogram id=”52984256-852a-43af-aad9-2a0b2fa4d930″ prefix=”Ivb” format=”interactive” title=”Copy: Cannabis Arrests V2″]

For adults across the city, the most common charge involved possession of more than an ounce of marijuana, which is punishable by up to six months in jail. For kids and teens, the most common charge was for bringing marijuana onto school grounds, which carries a penalty of counseling and community service.

Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, an SDPD spokesman, said the city did not step up marijuana enforcement after Prop. 64 went into effect but continues to enforce the marijuana laws still on the books — like bans on smoking in public places — as before.

He said he couldn’t explain the racial arrest disparities, and deferred questions about the large percentage of citations being issued at schools to San Diego Unified. SDPD’s juvenile officers don’t frequently patrol school grounds, he said, but they will respond if, say, a teacher calls the city rather than the school district’s police unit to report a student with marijuana.

San Diego Unified’s own demographic data more closely resembles the juvenile citation stats compiled by SANDAG. White children make up nearly a quarter of the student population while Latinos make up nearly half. Black students account for about 8 percent.

Maureen Magee, a spokeswoman for the school district, also noted that the parts of the city with higher numbers of juvenile citations are home to private and parochial schools, at least 20 charter schools, and at least one school run by the San Diego County Office of Education. “It’s not clear where the arrests occurred,” she said in an email.

Indeed, the data requested by Voice of San Diego doesn’t specify the name of the school involved, and whether a juvenile citation was issued by the San Diego Police Department or San Diego Unified’s police unit.

But the publicly available arrest data does include ZIP codes, and those figures show that some neighborhoods are experiencing higher levels of marijuana enforcement than others. Generally, lower-income communities tended to appear more often than wealthier ones as the location of an arrest or citation. The Logan Heights area saw the greatest number of juvenile citations, followed by Clairemont, downtown, Mid-City and San Ysidro. When it came to adults, Pacific Beach and downtown saw the greatest number of arrests, followed by Mid-City, Logan Heights, Ocean Beach, City Heights and Encanto.

A map of adult cannabis arrests by neighborhood from January 2017 - October 2019. Source: SANDAG/ARJIS
A map of adult cannabis arrests by neighborhood from January 2017 to October 2019. Source: SANDAG/ARJIS
Juvenile cannabis citations by neighborhood from January 2017 to October 2019 / Source: SANDAG/ARJIS

Voice of San Diego’s findings mirrored the findings of others.

Mid-City CAN, a community advocacy group, analyzed arrest data between 2012 and 2017, and concluded in August that the criminalization of marijuana has fallen disproportionately on communities of color in the central and southern parts of San Diego. In the years before recreational pot shops opened to the public, black San Diegans were six times more likely than their white neighbors to be arrested for a marijuana crime. Pacific Islanders were four times more likely and Latinos were twice as likely.

The group presented its findings to the city’s Economic Development and Intergovernmental Relations Committee last month, as part of a political push to redistribute marijuana tax revenues to some of these same communities.

“This was very important to us and to community members because beneath every number in this study is someone’s life,” said Diana Ross, Mid-City CAN’s executive director.

On Monday, NBC San Diego presented its own analysis of city attorney data since 2013 and concluded that blacks are approximately five times more likely to get prosecuted for minor drug offenses than whites or Latinos. These local findings coincided with national incarceration figures compiled by the United Nations.

But racial disparities go beyond who’s being punished for marijuana use. There’s also evidence that communities of color have been left out of the so-called green rush.

Equity Proposal Reveals Tension at City Hall

California doesn’t track the demographics of its legal marijuana industry, but at least media outlet has tried. In 2017, as the recreational market was preparing to open its doors, the Marijuana Business Daily, a trade publication in Sacramento, surveyed the industry and found that 19 percent of owners considered themselves to be racial minorities.

It was a higher percentage than some might had thought, but it was still too low in the eyes of advocates and lawmakers.

Last year, the California Legislature passed the Cannabis Equity Act, establishing a financial assistance program for minorities and other economically disadvantaged individuals. The idea was to help anyone who’d been effectively shut out of the business — or who resided in areas with higher-than-average unemployment, crime or child death rates — because they’d been previously arrested for or convicted of a marijuana-related crime.

The state program still requires buy-in from local jurisdictions, though, and so California set aside $10 million to help any cities or counties looking to do that. Los Angeles and San Francisco have launched their own equity initiatives, but those efforts are not without criticism.

There have been complaints that the early equity programs in California don’t set aside capital for minority applicants, who are less likely to get loans. That’s forced some people of color to go out and find a business partner who’s already wealthy, oftentimes white — defeating the intent of the original legislation.

In San Diego, City Council members Chris Ward and Monica Montgomery have been working on the outlines of an equity proposal of their own. It’s still coming together. But generally, Ward has said he would like to see the city reduce fees for minority applicants interested in starting a marijuana business, thereby providing the same economic incentives to communities of color that already exist for donut shops and craft breweries.

Montgomery’s office also wants to establish new programs for at-risk youth, such as substance abuse and job training, and help people who were convicted of marijuana crimes no longer on the books to petition the courts for resentencing. That money would come from a tax on marijuana sales — known as Measure N — which is expected to net $12.2 million in 2020.

Montgomery and others would like to see 100 percent of that money go back into their communities. But that’s likely to encounter pushback when the proposal comes back up for discussion in early 2020 because the city is facing an estimated $83.7 million budget deficit in next fiscal year, according to the Union-Tribune.

Measure N dollars go directly into the general fund, and in September, a representative for Mayor Kevin Faulconer raised concerns about the funding source being diverted over the long term. She used the word “preferential” to describe how permits and loans might be divvied up — language that Montgomery didn’t appreciate.

“We can’t do anything without money and resources, and we for too long have said that we support certain communities without funding certain communities,” she responded. “I’m really, really tired of hearing that.”

“I just want to be very clear,” she said. “This is deserving treatment, not preferential treatment. We have to lay that foundation as a city because we consistently are holding people back in the policies we put forward and the policies that are on the books. This is just the beginning.”

Land Use Still an Obstacle

Phil Rath, who represents the United Medical Marijuana Coalition, said his group of dispensary owners is not opposed to the redistribution of marijuana tax funds, because the racial and socioeconomic bias of the war on drugs is undeniable. But Measure N money was intended to offset the cost of overseeing a legitimate marijuana industry in San Diego, he said.

“Our hope was that the funds would make it possible for the city to further invest in pushing the marketplace to the legal and away from the illegal for a whole host of reasons — public safety and consumer protections and the tax benefits to the city.” Every dollar spent by a consumer on an illegal business, he added, is a dollar the city can’t tax.

Even if San Diego passes an equity program next year, land use will remain an obstacle.

There are still dispensary permits available, in part, because the zoning requirements — especially in Montgomery’s district, which has experienced a high number of marijuana arrests over the years — are so restrictive. Marijuana businesses cannot operate within a certain number of feet from homes, day cares, churches and other places deemed “sensitive.”

Filling those remaining nine permits would be the next best thing for the city to do, Rath said. For now, he sees a gap between what an equity program is trying to accomplish and what the regulations allow.

Jay Bowser, the co-founder of Paving Great Futures, a nonprofit that mentors kids from disadvantaged communities, is eyeing one of those permits, but he lacks the necessary capital to do it on his own. His organization is one of several advocating for an equity program in San Diego — what he describes as “a hand up” to people like himself, “not a handout.”

As a teen in southeastern San Diego, he was busted at school with half a gram, he said. Court records show he was also arrested in 2007 and charged with illegal cultivation, a felony. Bowser said he was legally able to grow medical marijuana under California’s medical marijuana laws at the time, but one of his permits had expired by a month. He pleaded guilty, and a decade later, thanks to Prop. 64, like hundreds of others in San Diego County, he was able to petition the court for resentencing.

Over the years, though, he lost work because of the felony on his record, he said.

Bowser acknowledged that equity programs haven’t lived up to their hype in other parts of the state, but said that’s all the more reason to get it right in San Diego. He believes, for instance, that a city-sponsored loan program for minority applicants is crucial so that they don’t need to rely on investors.

“We want to build equity and ownership, and find a path of least resistance,” he said. “It’s owed to us as a society.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post included an incorrect projection of the city’s estimated budget deficit for next year. It is $83.7 million.

Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

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