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Commentary By Jason L. Riley

California’s Affirmative Action for ‘Marijuana Entrepreneurs’

Governance Civil Justice

Los Angeles, Oakland and other cities create ‘equity programs’ to help minority ex-cons get into legal pot.

In California, a criminal record can prevent you from obtaining a liquor license but give you a leg up in obtaining a permit to deal dope. What gives?

It’s all part of an effort in the Golden State to help more minorities become “marijuana entrepreneurs.” On New Year’s Day, California became the ninth state to legalize cannabis for recreational use, but officials are worried that not enough blacks will qualify for the permits needed to sell weed legally. To address this “problem,” Los Angeles, Oakland and other cities have created “equity programs” that offer no-interest loans and other perks to people who live in poor black neighborhoods and have been convicted of drug crimes. If you’re a white applicant, you can improve your own chances of receiving a permit by “incubating” an equity applicant, which means making him a 50% partner in the business or giving him floor space in your establishment, rent-free.

The progressives who dreamed this up sold it as a way to compensate blacks, who have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. But what about the disproportionate number of blacks who have been victims of these black drug dealers? What about all the law-abiding blacks who reside in poor neighborhoods where drug gangs have taken over playgrounds and street corners and school yards and made the sound of gunfire a summer-night norm?

Back in 1996, California passed Proposition 209, which prohibits public institutions from discriminating based on race, so legal challenges to these “equity” schemes are inevitable. The other wild card is U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who announced a change in federal drug policy just three days after the California initiative legalizing recreational pot took effect.

In a one-page memorandum issued last Thursday, Mr. Sessions announced that the Trump administration will, when it sees fit, enforce federal marijuana laws even in states that have made the drug legal. This has been reported in some outlets as a reversal of the federal policy under President Obama, but it would be more accurate to characterize the move as a return to the rule of law.

It’s true that back in 2013, after Colorado and Washington state had legalized marijuana for recreational use, the Obama administration issued a set of “guidances” that discouraged federal prosecutors from pursuing marijuana cases in places where pot use was legal. Still, U.S. attorneys weren’t forfeiting prosecutorial discretion. They were simply urged not to prioritize state-sponsored cannabis businesses. And even that was conditional.

In his 2013 memo to U.S. attorneys, then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole included several red lines for states that would trigger federal intervention if crossed. Among other things, states had to stop interstate drug smuggling, keep kids from accessing pot, and prevent “drugged driving.” “Thus, this memorandum,” wrote Mr. Cole, “serves as a guidance to Department attorneys and law enforcement to focus their enforcement resources and efforts, including prosecution, on persons or organizations whose conduct interferes with any one or more of these priorities, regardless of state law.”

David Murray, who served in the Office of National Drug Control Policy during the George W. Bush administration, told me in a recent interview that such red lines “have been crossed repeatedly and blatantly at the state level.” According to a comprehensive Colorado study released last year, marijuana-related traffic fatalities have increased by 66% since the drug was legalized in 2012. And Colorado youth are first in the country—and 55% above the national average—in marijuana use.

Border patrol reports that less cannabis is entering the country, but cartel activity inside the U.S. has spiked as drug traffickers set up shop in states where the drug has been legalized and sell it at a premium in places where use of the drug remains illegal. USA Today reported last year that a pound of marijuana that sells for $2,000 in Colorado could sell for as much as $6,000 in New York or Georgia. “Marijuana smugglers are growing and shipping vast quantities of illicit cannabis across the USA,” said the paper. “They’re mailing it, driving it and, in at least one case, flying it around in skydiving planes.”

Mr. Sessions is being hammered by Democrats and fellow Republicans in Congress for diverging from Obama-era priorities on drug enforcement. GOP Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado has promised to hold up nominees to the Justice Department in protest. But much of this outrage looks feigned. The attorney general is a well-known drug warrior. It’s one of the reasons he has his current job. The problem that Mr. Sessions’s critics in Congress face is that marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Mr. Gardner would do better to focus less on Mr. Sessions, who doesn’t make laws, and more on his colleagues in Congress, who do.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal


Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Fox News commentator.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal