Top political consultants were worried. The ballot initiative that would legalize cannabis in California was on the ropes. It looked as if it would not pass. The biggest block of attainable votes would have to come from Latino voters. Polls suggested that they were against legalization. The word spread: the cannabis industry needed to convince a critical mass of Latino constituents to vote for Proposition 64.
At the most critical period of the campaign, groups that championed legalization like the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) met with reluctant Latino elected officials and community leaders to discuss the benefits of the initiative. The groups were unwilling to endorse cannabis legalization because of the social stigma and misinformation attached to the plant.
The advocacy groups promised these community leaders that Prop 64 would provide legal relief to the state’s pot prisoners. They also promised the new law would provide much needed local tax revenue thanks to the business opportunities available to entrepreneurs of color.
The organizing effort proved successful. The dial moved,and the initiative passed with the necessary Latino support in 2018.
The promises made have not been achieved. Much like the ringmaster who rounds up his carnival and heads to another town, the groups that sold the initiative have moved on.
A key to selling the idea was a promised surge in Latino cannabis businesses. However a survey from the Marijuana Policy Project indicated that racial and ethnic minorities only own 19% of these businesses. While Los Angeles created a “social equity” program, it is widely seen as watered down and weak. Even if the LA effort were robust, it would only be an afterthought compared to what other cities could offer minority entrepreneurs.
Latino legalization advocates are anywhere from extremely disappointed to wildly angry that groups like DPA are now unreachable to most. They are not interested in helping to reform the regulation or working with local municipalities to deliver on the campaign’s promises.
While the story of policy “pump and dump” is instructive, it may not be over yet. As one early legalization advocate told me recently, “The next time these groups come to call they may find their support, like their promises, has gone up in smoke.”