Sometime around 1970, I was walking with a friend down 50th Street in southwest Minneapolis on our way to see “M*A*S*H” (the movie) at the Edina Theater. Near Xerxes Avenue we slipped behind a building and, like a lot of our teenage peers at the time, smoked a joint.
We didn’t get caught by the police. That would have been highly unlikely, as there almost never were cop cars in our neighborhood.
I’m not proud to admit I broke the law, and I don’t condone it, but it’s about time people got honest about marijuana. That is especially true for white people like me whose experiences during the drug’s prohibition have been so dramatically different than they would have been if we had been black.
The consequences of this vastly different experience have played out for decades, ruining lives, careers, families and communities. With 10 states and the District of Columbia already having legalized recreational marijuana, and with a new governor and legislative leaders considering it here in Minnesota, let’s use this moment to come to terms with the dramatic inequity and finally take some long-overdue steps to address the consequences.
Before talking about how to fix the problem, we need to understand it. Let’s say we’re back in 1970, and my teenage self is across town trying to sneak a joint on West Broadway, in a neighborhood with a higher proportion of black residents. There are many more police cars along Broadway than along 50th Street, which means it’s more likely I’ll get caught. We also know that arrest is only where the inequity starts. No matter where I was arrested, the data show my consequences would have been far worse had I been black rather than white.
Blacks and whites use marijuana at about the same rate, but blacks are more than three times as likely to get arrested, according to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) study. Studies in state after state have shown disparities that bad, or worse. Once those arrested get into court, disparities get worse: Black male offenders receive sentences that are a shocking 19 percent longer than those for white males with similar offenses, according to a study by the federal government’s United States Sentencing Commission, which shows a comparable level of disparity reaching back many years.
The ACLU study also showed that Minnesota spent some $42 million per year enforcing marijuana laws.
To fully understand what all that has meant over these many years of marijuana’s prohibition, people in positions like mine, and so many of your readers, need to ask: How different would my life be if, instead of being a white teenager who went on without consequence to see the movie that night, I had been a black teenager, caught and put into the criminal justice system?
I am certain I would not be where I am today. Neither would many people of color whose arrests for marijuana possession began experiences in the criminal justice system that had deep consequences for them and for whole communities.
If we legalize marijuana, we cannot simply sweep these extraordinary inequities under the rug. Our state can show the rest of the country a better way to address both the past and the future if the legalization legislation — and our use of estimated tax revenue expected to reach as high as $200 million a year — includes three principles:
1. Provide a fresh start for those in the legal system. Nothing can restore the jail time served by a disproportionately black population incarcerated for low-level marijuana offenses. We can, however, swiftly clear records so people can move on with their lives. Colorado created an appeals process, but the time and money it took created even deeper racial disparities, and inequities in the judicial and appeals system made that even worse.
Minnesota should look hard at automatic expungement, which may be the best way to avoid even more inequities for populations that have already suffered enough.
2. Create economic opportunities for communities most harmed by past enforcement. The new marijuana industry will be regulated. And if licenses go only to the highest bidders, it is likely the winners will be big interests already profiting in other states.
Instead, Minnesota should reserve a significant portion of those licenses for communities of color, especially African-Americans. California has done this on a small level, and the effort illustrated that emerging businesses need ongoing working capital. Legalization legislation can provide capital from the tax revenue itself, and add to the pool by challenging lenders, foundations and the state itself to use part of their investment pools to create low-interest loans to these new businesses of color.
These loans can be more effective if they are distributed through organizations with a proven track record helping communities of color, such as the Metropolitan Economic Development Association (MEDA), Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) and Northside Economic and Opportunity Network (NEON). This could also help jump-start Village Financial Cooperative, the new African-American credit union in north Minneapolis.
Tax revenue should be high enough to also address the state’s metro-rural divide. If Minnesotans are going to legally use marijuana, it shouldn’t be shipped in from out of state. Changing laws for local brewers created a statewide boom; marijuana legalization could be even bigger because, unlike breweries, emerging marijuana businesses will not be going up against an already-established industry. And, while the state has no control over where a new brewery is opened, marijuana licensing can be used to direct new growing and processing operations to parts of Minnesota that need help the most.
3. Legalization should include prevention. Recreational marijuana may become legal, but that doesn’t make it good for you. The success of the prevention built into Minnesota’s tobacco settlement can be a model for how new tax dollars from legalization could help prevent addiction, not only to marijuana, but also potentially alcohol and opioids.
Initiatives might include providing accurate research on the disturbing indications of what the drug does to adolescent brain development; focusing on preventing nefarious practices like marketing colorful edibles to kids; and preventing impaired driving, whether caused by marijuana or alcohol.
We could also attack root causes of addiction, with efforts like the Minneapolis Foundation’s Catalyst Initiative, which helps diverse populations use nonnarcotic methods to mitigate trauma.
To date, none of the states that have legalized recreational marijuana have built these three principles deeply into their process. The most holistic model is a proposal from the New York City mayor’s office, which integrates licensing, land use, public safety, financial resources, consumer protection and more through a very strong equity focus.
I almost always want Minnesota to be first. We won’t be this time, but that may be for the best. We can learn from the experiences in other states to lead the country in using this moment to create a future that is fairer than a very imperfect past.
R. T. Rybak is CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation and author of “Pothole Confidential: My Life As Mayor of Minneapolis.” Angela Tona contributed research.