Medical marijuana user Ezekiel Muses checks out a jar of medical marijuana, that he uses for back pain, at the CANNA CARE medical marijuana dispensory, in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
by Goldie Taylor
On New Year’s Day, the first recreational marijuana shops opened for business in Colorado. Through a landmark ballot initiative, the state became the first and only place in the world where recreational cannabis can be grown, sold and taxed legally. Eager customers lined up along snowy, freshly cleared sidewalks; gleefully awaiting their turn to purchase neatly packaged sacks of bud.
King Tut Kush, Gypsy Girl. You name it, you can get it. That is so long as you are over 21, can front enough cash and agree to also buy the required childproof bag. Retailers, who had both the investment capital and the stamina to undergo rigorous inspections, background checks and approval process, anticipated as many as 1,000 first-day customers.
Amendment 64 is truly groundbreaking legislation not only because it is the first of its kind to be enacted, but also because of its presumed power to become a spring board for other states to follow suit. Pot advocates believe the move could spell the beginning of the end of a 70-year prohibition-era. Without question, Colorado (and soon Washington State) is a critical test case for federal legalization.
By creating a highly regulated “seed to sale” market, Colorado stands to reap an estimated $70 million bonanza in tax revenue this year alone. In addition to the standard applicable sales tax, voters approved an additional 25 percent levy on every transaction. No matter what you believe about the relative benefits or pitfalls of smoking pot, its legalization—much like alcohol—is a clear moneymaker for nearly everyone involved.
With the influx of new jobs and new revenue, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper will be singing, “Do you love me, Mary Jane?” all the way to the bank.
Still others in the Left-leaning chatter class, however, would like you to believe that Colorado—and soon other states—has eradicated the necessity of black market weed entirely. They would have you believe, that by bringing the market “above ground” the way Colorado did, state and local law enforcement dollars can be re-prioritized to focus on crimes that have a tangibly negative impact on public safety. A bevy of well-honed opinion columns in heavy circulation also point out that even though blacks and whites use marijuana at near equal rates, African-Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested for possession.
They will tell you, with a straight face, that the Colorado referendum effectively puts and end to inequities in criminalization based on race and class.
“By legalizing marijuana, Colorado has stopped the needless and racially biased enforcement of marijuana prohibition laws,” said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Criminal Law Reform Project.
Though my now grown children will be surprised to learn that I am agnostic about smoking the “sticky-itcky”, I am deeply troubled about the potential legal outcomes for those who cannot afford to participate in the legal market.
At issue, at least for me, is the manner in which the new regulations have been enacted. Tight regulation, short supply and the general cost of running a business—including additional security measures– caused early prices to skyrocket. Some shops are reporting sales as high as $500 per ounce, plus 25 percent tales tax— or nearly double what one might pay at the nearest trap house or college dorm room.
At that price, one should be able to dump their stash on the coffee table and watch it magically roll and light itself.
A chart-topping friend in the music industry, who is nothing short of an expert “weedologist”, says it is indeed “top notch sh*t.” But he recalls copping an ounce for just $300 a few months ago in Colorado.
The government now owns the game and with that comes a myriad of drawbacks. Exorbitant pricing and heavy taxation effectively locked many people out of the market. And even if that is short-term, it ensures the black market will persist. The ever savvy and nimble “trap gods”, free of the regulatory environment, the costs associated with lighting up a store, paying employees and issuing W-2s, will adjust their prices to meet the demand for cheaper weed.
That’s just the free market at work. And nobody knows the game better than the streets.
But make no mistake, that street market will remain criminalized. “The new system is f**ked up,” said the weedologist. He agrees that, in fact, for this experiment to be successful not only will the state have to get more shops approved to improve the supply chain flow, law enforcement must clamp down on the illegal trade. The government game cannot survive if the street peddler and his bargain basement prices are allowed to flourish. And that almost certainly means more arrests– more arrests of a largely black, brown and disproportionately poor population of street vendors. The result may further tip the scales in favor of a privileged class already largely safe from criminalization.
MSNBC host Chris Hayes, a fervent anti-prohibition supporter, took to the airwaves with a powerful, personal account of how he almost landed in the jail for marijuana possession.“I can tell you as sure as I am sitting here before you that if I was a black kid with cornrows instead of a white kid with glasses, my a** would’ve been in a squad car faster than you can say George W. Bush,” Hayes told his All Inaudience.
You could ask my father and brothers if they were still alive to tell you their side of the story. You see I am far from new to this discussion. My father was a heroin dealer in the 1960s and 70s. Leaving the game, he was murdered before he could testify in a federal case. My twin brother Christopher, a crack gang kingpin, was gunned down in a drug turf war by a rival gang and my older brother Don, a self-medicator who succumbed to HIV/AIDS, would scratch, sniff, smoke or shoot up anything he could get his hands on. My mother once pawned her wedding rings to get Donnie out of jail on amarijuana possession charge. He died broke and alone in a hospice room.
Despite what my learned colleagues might tell you, there is nothing progressive about laws that will effectively deepen the chasm of inequities in the criminalization of marijuana. Even in the short-term, while we are still working out the kinks, the dispossessed black and brown masses will be lining courtrooms and serving time.
When they tell you this is about lessening the strain of law enforcement, don’t believe them. It’s about advancing—even if unintentionally– institutionalized profiling. It’s a license to descend upon every street corner and alleyway in search of illegal weed peddlers. Aside from tourism and real estate, the prison industrial complex is among the biggest employers in Colorado. That will not change. Those metal prison beds, run by private for-profit companies, must still be sold. And we know who will not be sleeping in them.
In cities across Colorado and around the country, young black and brown boys are still doing jail time and losing educational and job opportunities as a result of over-policing. A drug conviction will get a whole family tossed out of public housing. Under this new law, those who see relief will be among the moneyed, privileged class.
So it’s distressing to see my learned colleagues thump their chests over the end of pot prohibition when the new law re-doubles the lock-out for so many who cannot afford the legal market. Maybe pot should be legalized. But this method is rife with elitist thinking and further feeds the over criminalization of the least of these.
It is easy to dismiss the plight of the illegal drug dealer on its face and focus on consumers. After all, individuals can grow up to six plants at home, provided they are enclosed and locked. But I would posit that it is in our collective best interest not to turn away. Take away the only livelihood they know, and they will find something else you may not like—such as harder drugs to manufacture and sell or property crimes. Or they find ways to expand an existing market. Marijuana use among teenagers, even though barred from buying under the new law, is on the rise. Do nothing and expect them to be targeted with greater zeal.
If we were truly interested in curing the injustices, the governor would issue pardons or at least call for the conviction of every inmate serving time for simple possession to be set-aside. If not for the steady revenue that comes with locking up petty dealers, Colorado would offer business training and investment dollars so that former street merchants could open their own stores or go to work in existing ones.
In time, the market may well normalize. Regulated supplies will likely increase and prices will fall, especially when (not if) Big Business gets involved. And when they do, lobbyists’ dollars will flow through the halls of the state capitol in an attempt to ensure the death of the black market. We can also expect that with the lure of “clean money”, deep-pocketed drug cartels, using straw owners and other avenues, will find their way back into the game.
Barring any additional reforms, black market dealers will be put out of business and jailed. Or worse. They will die fighting over the last scrap of turf — tragically human cost too many are all too willing to pay.