The “Equity” Cloak for Marijuana

The revived proposal to turn Cesar Chavez Park into a marijuana promotion site was withdrawn after public comment at a July 8 hearing. See story. Here for the record is an additional comment on the issue.

By Carol Denney

Marijuana promoter High Times’ effort to use Cesar Chavez Park as a “designated location” for marijuana events was so strongly opposed in the spring of this year by grassroots park protectors and public health advocates that Mayor Jesse Arreguin reassured at least one advocate that there are “no immediate plans to revisit the Marijuana events issue, and if we do I agree it should go to multiple commissions including the Health Commission, Parks Commission and Marijuana Commission, because this policy could have multiple impacts on our city.”

Meeting of the “Health, Life Enrichment, Equity and Community” Committee [Carol Denney photo]

That word apparently didn’t travel far. The “Health, Life Enrichment, Equity and Community Committee” took it up on Monday, July 8th, 2019 at 10:00 am on the sixth floor of City Hall where it took another beating by community voices opposed to using any parks for marijuana promotions, especially Cesar Chavez Park. Councilmember Ben Bartlett quickly withdrew his proposal after public comment.

Councilmembers Cheryl Davila, District 2, and Ben Bartlett, District 3, had referred the matter to the committee of three; Councilmembers Rashi Kesarwani, in whose district Cesar Chavez Park is located, Sophie Hahn, who chaired the 10:00 am meeting after, ironically, an item about air quality,  and Ben Bartlett, who introduced the item as an “equity” issue. Racial equity is the concept of using lucrative marijuana dispensary licensing to address the disproportionate burdens the war on drugs and disproportionate criminal penalties have had on communities of color by making sure entrepreneurs of color are represented in the new landscape of marijuana profits.

Most of the speakers were in favor of addressing racial disparities in just this way, but were opposed to marijuana promotions in public parks, access to which are a crucial park of public health in any healthy community and which, in Berkeley, are smokefree since 2008 by local ordinance.

The materials in the committee packet touted Berkeley’s overwhelming support for California’s Proposition 64, which decriminalized recreational marijuana, as an indication that Berkeley would be in support of marijuana promotions in public parks. This is not the case. Proposition 64’s support in Berkeley and in other California cities was for decriminalization, for safe access, and for the prohibition of marijuana smoking in all public places. That public smoking prohibition is part of why the proposition passed.

Proposition 64 allowed cities to create municipal rules and permits for temporary marijuana events, but the law itself prohibits public smoking of marijuana, and lists marijuana smoke clearly as a carcinogen on its public health website as mandated by Proposition 65’s public list of all known carcinogenic substances. There are many private areas where marijuana promoters could hold festivals and events. But Berkeley would have to erode its hard-won municipal public health protections to create marijuana events in public places.

But it is also misleading to imply that “equity” mechanisms, efforts to address racial inequities, are best addressed through the promotion and sale of marijuana in public parks, especially considering that Berkeley’s public health indices continue to show obscene disparities in public health between Berkeley’s white populations and our communities of color. Minority communities have long been the target of Big Tobacco, which has linked arms with the marijuana industry and the vaping industry in primarily targeting youth, a practice documented by smokefree advocates for decades. Berkeley students smoke marijuana at twice the rate of California students more generally. As a city, we have work to do.

“Cannaculture’s” pitch for public lands [Carol Denney photo]

High Times, the group whose inquiry originated this “pilot project”, is a wealthy, white group promoting marijuana nationwide. It prides itself on violating smokefree ordinances wherever it goes as part of its rebel branding, a branding that made sense when marijuana was being unnecessarily demonized. High Times has had decades to demonstrate an honest interest in racial equity issues. It has not. It has the deep pockets to generate a fund to assist communities of color with start-ups not limited to marijuana; small businesses with are the heart of any commercial district. And it has done none of those things. It continues to do what Big Tobacco has done for decades; find ways to whittle loopholes in local smoking restrictions in an effort to restore the shrinking habitat for those who use its products, which now include vaping products and a wider array of marijuana products. “Equity issues” in Berkeley are just its latest cloak; this is about money, money it primarily makes off of communities of color.

Look sharp for special interests using “equity” in the same familiar efforts Big Tobacco uses to undermine public health protections.  Express your suspicions about any room set aside to discuss the use of public parks for marijuana promotions which does not include representatives from the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, Americans for Non-Smokers Rights, and the American Lung Association, to name only a few.

And if you don’t hear a ringing defense of your smokefree public parks and smokefree protections from your Berkeley City Councilmembers and your Mayor right about now as they try to coax people into back rooms and try to do an end run around the relevant commissions, please consider running for office. Your community needs you. The tobacco, marijuana, and vaping industry are coming for your kids, and there’s nothing subtle about it.

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