Delayed dreams

Victims of drug war wonder, ‘where is justice?’

Malaki Seku-Amen has been working with the city of Sacramento on its equity program for communities impacted by the drug war.

Malaki Seku-Amen has been working with the city of Sacramento on its equity program for communities impacted by the drug war.

Photo by Michael Mott

Merrell “Poison” Sanchez has the building. He even has some equipment. Now, he just needs the city to come through. Sanchez is an aspiring cannabis entrepreneur, one of a group with past cannabis convictions Sacramento promised would get extra resources after being locked up during the drug war period of American law enforcement.

“I went to prison for weed. Not selling, just for having it” Sanchez said. “A couple bags: Placer County gave me 28 months for that.”

Sanchez was going out with his cousin and some girlfriends before he was convicted in 2000, he said. That was the year California began loosening drug sentencing, allowing non-violent offenders to serve time in a drug treatment program. But not Sanchez. He went to prison.

Eighteen years later, after preparing his business plan and meetings with investors, Sanchez wants the city to waive the thousands of dollars required for city fees so he can make a manufacturing business, creating cannabis oils and possibly, some cultivation. Five months after the city council voted to create the Cannabis Opportunity, Reinvestment Equity Program, or CORE, the city is only now calling for consultants to operate a small-business support center to give Sanchez, and others like him, delayed after city attorneys realized Sacramento needed to conduct a study advocates had called for over a year ago.

“They were saying, ’We’re going to have the best equity program.’ Here it is, 2018, and we have nothing,” Sanchez said.

The council will likely review the proposal and study any week now. In the wake of the Stephon Clark shooting, Malaki Seku-Amen, a lead advocate pushing for the program and director of the California Urban Partnership, said the study’s limited nature and CORE’s delays add to a record of inequity for Sacramento’s black and brown communities.

“For us, our pain stems from having the city treat equity as the dead last priority. Stephon Clark’s death is reminding us how the city keeps killing us. Every time there’s a delay in the implementation of the equity program, the city is leaving our community again in another era of poverty.”

In a recent opinion piece in The Sacramento Bee, Seku-Amen called on the city to set aside more than the $1 million already promised for youth services and economic devleopment, to publicly plan to build economic health in Clark’s neighborhood and to speed CORE’s implementation, which he wrote was going “at a snail’s pace.”

Late last November, Mayor Darrell Steinberg didn’t have to bother with a roll-call vote. “All in favor of equity?” he asked, after hours of public discussion on CORE. “That’s eight to nothing. Great work Malaki, Brenden, all you guys. Councilmembers. Everybody.”

The council directed staff to create the small business center, establish fee waiver and deferrals, prioritize equity recipients applications for conditional use and business permits and engage community-based businesses to help residents of diverse neighborhoods complete applications.

In April before the vote, Seku-Amen and others requested that the city conduct a decades-long analysis of the marijuana arrest rate in Sacramento and to slow down the licensing process until that data was available. Instead, they got a one-page chart that only dove into the latest years of data—2012-16—showing that despite black Sacramentans making up 13 percent of the city’s population, 44 percent of Sacramento Police Department’s marijuana-related arrests were of African-Americans.

Seku-Amen said the city should go back to 1980 to show the true impact of the drug war, beyond arrests, to the social impacts on families and neighborhoods, and to draw up solutions. After the city said that wasn’t necessary, the vote proceeded and Seku-Amen waited.

That was until a few months into 2018, when after prodding, the city said it needed to conduct a study.

Joe Devlin, Sacramento’s director of the Office of Cannabis Policy & Enforcement, said the city’s attorneys requested the study to establish criteria of the problems caused by the drug war when his office began putting together the call for consultants for the small business center.

Devlin said the city completed the study this April, looking at arrest data starting in 2001. The city couldn’t look back further since data collection practices changed prior to then, he said. Devlin maintained the city was still on track for the program.

“Malaki and I have a little different view of the marketplace,” Devlin said in a mid-April interview. “We haven’t issued any business operating permits, except for the 30 existing dispensaries. This whole industry is still in its infancy in terms of its processes with the city. Once we get the vendor selected, we can start taking applications for the equity program pretty soon.”

The bigger problem, Devlin said, will be drawing capital and investors.

“The [vendor] is going to be expected to be able to make introductions to people who can identify investors. But the scale of it is just a challenge. I haven’t given up on how to solve that,” he said.

Sanchez was beginning to set-up meetings with investors when speaking with SN&R. He plans to use some of the proceeds from his business to support Brother to Brother, a group of current and former gang members building peer support to reduce violence in Del Paso Heights and other neighborhoods.

“I want to take kids to see college,” he said. “Or buy one of our members a suit, who just graduated college,” Sanchez said, adding the group had just met with Councilmember Angelique Ashby on responding to Stephon Clark. “It definitely would help. I need to talk with Malaki, try to get another meeting.”

After requesting the city’s study and call for vendors on April 11, Devlin said it would be released the following week. A week later, he said it would come the next week. As of this writing, weeks later, advocates and SN&R were still waiting.

Seku-Amen and other advocates hoped for a 1:1 ratio of equity licensees and non-equity licensees and to pause approvals until the equity program is in place. Instead, the city made 50 percent only a “goal.”

Seku-Amen hopes for community engagement moving forward, saying the city still

wasn’t performing culturally competent outreach those affected by the over-

criminalization of pot.

“The city of LA isn’t expecting to have its program fully implemented until the end of the summer. But at least they have an application—and in some cases, reviewing them,” he said, speaking from an equity summit in Chicago. “The city of Sacramento is doing none of that right now.”