By HELEN CHRISTOPHI
OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – After months of stalled negotiations and City Council infighting, the city of Oakland is poised to approve a permitting process for giving medical marijuana business licenses to people who have been incarcerated for pot crimes or who live in parts of the city with a high number of marijuana-related arrests.
Although the City Council approved an equity permit program this past May that was meant to make it easier for low-income people and communities of color devastated by the war on drugs to start medical cannabis businesses, a vocal outcry from pot growers ineligible for the program prompted councilmembers Dan Kalb, Annie Campbell Washington and Abel Guillen to propose amendments that would relax the program's constraints while reserving a place at the table for those at a disadvantage.
The program, pushed by councilmembers Desley Brooks and Larry Reid, grants up to eight medical cannabis business permits to Oakland residents each year, and reserves a minimum of four of those permits for equity-eligible owners convicted of cannabis-related offenses or who live in one of six East Oakland police beats with a large number of marijuana-related arrests. It also prioritizes the granting of equity permits over regular ones.
At a special council meeting Monday night, Brooks announced another in a long line of proposed amendments that riled existing cannabis growers – collecting back taxes from large pot businesses and imposing a civil penalty of $10,000 a day until they obtain a permit.
"For those that say they pioneered in the cannabis industry, it was illegal under federal law," Brooks said to gasps from growers, who had gathered at City Hall to implore the council to approve the amendments floated by Kalb, Campbell Washington and Guillen. "When people don't pay us their taxes, we make them pay their taxes and interest. We impose civil penalties all the time. This is nothing different."
Brooks said she had toured a cannabis dispensary whose owners had spent $2 million to retrofit, implying that existing, large-scale pot businesses don't require the same leg-up from the permit program that disadvantaged communities do.
"Where is the equity?" she asked.
However, Kalb, Campbell Washington and Guillen say the program is too restrictive and will drive cannabis businesses from the city, along with millions of dollars in tax revenue.
The program's emphasis on equity permits over regular ones and in certain police beats, and its restrictions on financing mechanisms, will lock out thousands of residents from the cannabis industry and punish existing businesses that don't meet the program's equity eligibility criteria, they said.
Their proposal would eliminate prioritization of equity permits but create a fund to help disadvantaged individuals start and maintain cannabis businesses.
"I think we have the opportunity to achieve some real effective funding mechanisms and programs to help those who want to get into the business who have had challenges and still not constrain the sector so much," Kalb said.
In a contentious 4-3 vote, the City Council asked City Administrator Sabrina Landreth to present amendments for a January vote based on the Kalb-Campbell Washington-Guillen proposal that incorporate equity recommendations from Oakland's new Race and Equity Department Director Darlene Flynn.
After the vote, Reid noted that any change to the permit program needs five votes to pass, and vowed to maintain the program's emphasis on equity.
"I'm going to be spending between now and December packing this chamber with African-Americans and Latinos so you can take a look at them and do the right thing," he said.