Malcolm Turner, working the counter at Blunts + Moore. Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED
Malcolm Turner, working the counter at Blunts + Moore. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

Righting the Wrongs from the War on Drugs in Oakland

Righting the Wrongs from the War on Drugs in Oakland

Malcolm Turner is only half-joking when he says he can’t listen to Juvenile’s "Sets Go Up" anymore.

That’s the song he was slapping at max volume when he and our mutual friend Darrell were pulled over by Oakland police back in 2006. You know how it goes: they were stopped for speeding, or maybe a tail light. Asked about any outstanding warrants. One officer smelled marijuana, and before you know it, they were both arrested on charges of possession.

Somehow they managed to call me to come pick up their car. When I pulled up, Malcolm and Darrell, friends who I’d known since before puberty, were both in the back of the patrol car, headed to jail. Even worse, they were en route to a decade of disenfranchisement due to a bag of some damn herbs.

"We were 18 or 19," Malcolm told me when we talked recently about the impact the arrest had on his life. "That was before I could get into a career. That hindered employment and all that... it damn near will make you want to go back to selling weed!"

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Malcolm has since had a few legal gigs: a couple stints at Home Depot, working as a security guard, and he’s gone through Laney College’s welding program—only to find that getting a job in that industry wasn’t as easy as they said it’d be.

Late last year, though, Malcolm’s search for a career landed him right back where he started: selling weed. This time, legally.

Last December, I walked into Blunts + Moore marijuana dispensary in East Oakland, and there was my pal Malcolm, smiling, talking to customers and peddling marijuana.

Malcolm Turner helps a customer at Blunts + Moore in Oakland.
Malcolm Turner helps a customer at Blunts + Moore in Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

Big Mal, as he’s known, was one of the first employees at Blunts + Moore, the first cannabis dispensary in Oakland given a license by way of Oakland's Cannabis Equity Program.

After California legalized the sale of recreational cannabis, Oakland passed a bill that would require at least 50 percent of all cannabis permits to go to applicants of the equity program. To qualify for that program, among other criteria, residents either had to live in a high-crime zone for the past decade, or have been charged with a marijuana-related offense anytime since November of 1996.

Over 600 applicants applied. Six of them granted licenses opened in Oakland last year.

For those lucky few, the program not only opens the door to the industry, but also is supposed to work as a sort of business incubator, lending contacts and advice to the new entrepreneurs. They’ve also added no-interest loans as an aspect of the program (since currently no bank allows cannabis businesses to have a bank account, let alone grant them loans). Additionally, according to the East Bay Express, the city is turning to the State of California to add funds to their effort, as last year’s SB 1294 allows cities with equity programs to tap into a $10 million state fund.

Even with these efforts, the Cannabis Equity Program has gotten a lot of flack, mainly for being touted more as more progressive than it actually is. You have to imagine: you hear "equity program" and you’d think it’s something that levels the playing field. Six dispensaries in Oakland out of 600 applicants leaves a lot of victims of the war on drugs behind.

But it is a leg up. Brittany Moore, co-founder of Blunts + Moore, acknowledges that she benefits from the program, but says it’s not a standalone solution. "I feel like it’s a little boost. It isn’t a handout. It says, 'Here is a shot that you would’ve never gotten if it weren’t for this program,' so I’m grateful for it," Moore told me as we stood in an office at Blunts + Moore.

Brittany Moore and Alphonso Blunt, cofounders of Blunts + Moore, got an assist from Oakland's Equity Program.
Brittany Moore and Alphonso Blunt, cofounders of Blunts + Moore, got an assist from Oakland's Equity Program. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

Moore’s co-founder, East Oakland native Alphonso Blunt (yes, the owners’ real names are Blunt and Moore) agrees. "It’s not as bad as they say, it just needed funding and education. Because it works, you just need people who know how to talk, how to not give up any of their equity."

Equity, in terms of making sure all parties have a fair shot in this "green rush," as some call it, is important—especially for communities that have suffered due to the war on drugs. And equity, in terms of retaining ownership, is just as important.

California brought in a reported $2.5 billion from the marijuana industry last year. And although that was less than projected, the industry overall is growing. The Golden State is just one of 10 states where recreational marijuana currently is legal, and one of over 30 states where medical cannabis is legal. In the next six years, it’s predicted the industry will be worth $25 billion.

Alphonso Blunt and a customer.
Alphonso Blunt and a customer. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

Nationally, there are a number of people with political will pushing for further legalization of marijuana, including former New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and Earl Blumenauer, a Democratic Representative from Oregon who authored H.R. 420, a bill that would remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Acknowledging the industry's potential, as well as the history of over-policing people of color in low-income communities, is part of what led former Oakland council member Desley Brooks to introduce the Equity program. According to a 2015 report from then-Attorney General Kamala Harris’s Office, "18 percent of arrestees for marijuana-related felonies in 2014 in the state were black even though, according to the 2010 census, only about 6 percent of California's population is black. Meanwhile, white people constituted 31 percent of arrestees even though they made up more than 40 percent of the state population in 2010."

To understand the situation in Alameda County—and specifically Oakland—take a look at a 2014 survey of over 28,000 Oakland Police Department stops of drivers and pedestrians. It found that a ridiculous amount of the stops—60 percent—were of African Americans. Man, African Americans only make up 28 percent of Oakland’s population, and that’s constantly decreasing.

Malcolm Turner is currently the top sales associate at Blunts + Moore.
Malcolm Turner is currently the top sales associate at Blunts + Moore. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

Malcolm was arrested a few years prior to that study, back when the Oakland Police Department first landed under federal monitor for malpractice in communities of color. (Sixteen years later, Oakland is still under that federal monitor.) And despite an Assembly Bill passed last year to expunge records of those who’ve had marijuana offenses, Malcolm still has his offense on his record.

That’s why it’s wild to see him find his footing in this industry. He’s the reason why the legalization of marijuana is important, and even more reason why the Equity Program is important. I’d argue that without the Equity Program—without someone like Moore, who has a background in understanding corporate finance, and Blunt, who has a background in knowing just about everyone in East Oakland—Malcolm wouldn’t have been hired by a dispensary. Especially not by the growing number of "luxury cannabis" operations that have sprung up in California, largely white-owned, including ganga yoga and edibles for dogs.

Moore told me the story of how Malcolm was hired, out of their pool of over 2,000 applicants. Of course, on the day of interviews, Malcolm showed up to the job fair without a resume. Instead of lying about his printer not working, he told them straight-up that he'd seen the job opening on Instagram and decided to just roll up to the joint.

Despite his lack of preparation—a dealbreaker for most companies—it was wise of Blunts + Moore to hire him. In their first month of operation, with his product knowledge and natural connection with the customer base, Malcolm was their top "budtender."

When it boils down to it, Malcolm’s story is just one of thousands, a microcosm of the widespread fallout from the war on drugs. That one traffic stop in 2006 needlessly ruined 10 years of Malcom’s life.

And while the Equity Program in Oakland has issues, from implementation to administration, after all those years of broken-taillight stops and disproportionate arrests, there’s finally a story of one time local government sort of got something right.

Now, the question is how do you bring this to scale in Oakland? And how do you replicate it for other cities, and spread the reparations around?

It's certainly helped Big Mal. During that phone call earlier this month, before he hung up, Malcolm laughed as he told me, “I’m staying in this industry; I could become a doctor, and I’d still have a side gig doing this.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that only four of 600 applicants to the equity program were granted licenses. According to Assistant City Administrator Gregory Minor, "the City of Oakland has locally authorized approximately 370 equity applicants for a temporary state license, and six of the eight dispensaries added last year by the City of Oakland are owned-or co-owned by equity applicants."

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