By Ryan Gray Merriam

Communities of color have disproportionately suffered the consequences of marijuana prohibition in the United States. In 2016, the New York Times published a review of the NYPD’s arrest data. The report showed that roughly 85% of those arrested for low-level marijuana possession were Black and Latino.[i]  In 2013, a study by the ACLU found that Black people accounted for 58% of Maryland’s marijuana possession arrests, despite comprising only 30% of the state’s population.[ii] The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania published a study in 2018 that examined Pennsylvania arrests for marijuana possession between 2010 and 2016. The study found that although Black and white Pennsylvanians use marijuana at roughly the same rate, Black Pennsylvanians were arrested for marijuana possession at rates between 3.6 and 7.7 times higher than whites.[iii]

The Medical Marijuana Act (Act) was not only an opportunity to get medicine into the hands of Pennsylvanians that needed it, but also to correct the historic injustices inflicted on communities of color in the name of marijuana prohibition. The Act was signed into law on April 17, 2016. This Act provided for the growth, processing, dispensing, and taxation of medical marijuana in the Commonwealth. While many medical marijuana advocates felt legalization was long overdue, others were fearful. Opponents of legalization warned that medical marijuana would bring increased crime, create addiction, and further fuel the ongoing drug epidemic. Fearful of the consequences of both legalization and public opinion, lawmakers included in the Act a prohibition on dispensaries within 1,000 feet of the property line of any public, private, or parochial school or day-care. 28 Pa. Code § 1161.31. Many municipalities took these zoning restrictions further. For example, on March 29, 2021, Mayor Jim Kenney of Philadelphia signed into law a zoning ordinance prohibiting the establishment of dispensaries within 500 feet of not only schools and daycares, but also any public parks, recreation centers or libraries. The new regulation also carves out large areas of the city where dispensaries are banned entirely. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Municipal Code, Title 14, § 14-603. Philadelphia City Councilman Curtis Jones, who proposed the restrictions, said, “if you have too many bars in one location, you become a location destination for alcohol. This is the same.” [iv]

But dispensaries are not the same as bars.

For one, dispensaries must have far more security measures than bars. Dispensaries are required to maintain extensive security equipment and protocols that bars do not. The act requires both silent and audible alarms, cameras in any room with exterior doors or windows as well the exterior, and professionals to monitor those systems twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The recordings from the security system must all be saved for two years and must be stored in an area with an entirely separate alarm system. 28 Pa. Code § 1151.26. As part of the permitting process, the applicant must submit fingerprints of its principals, financial backers, and employees to the state for an FBI background check. § 1141.31 No one who has been convicted of a criminal offense relating to the illegal sale of controlled substances may be affiliated with the dispensary or any other medical marijuana organization under the Act. Ibid.

Secondly, a dispensary operates more like a pharmacy than a bar. The fears that rowdy intoxicated patrons will linger around all day and all night are unfounded. Where a bar sells alcohol to be consumed on premises, the Act explicitly does not permit a dispensary to allow patients to consume cannabis on site.  § 1161.22. In addition, the Act requires a physician, pharmacist, or nurse practitioner with additional training to be on site whenever the dispensary is open to the public. § 1161.25, § 1181.23. This is because the Act treats medical marijuana as medicine, not as an intoxicant.

Thirdly, early studies indicate that home values rise more quickly when located closely to a marijuana business. Fears that dispensaries would increase crime and erode home values like bars have not come to pass. A study of Colorado published by the conservative Cato Institute found that homes within .1 miles of a dispensary increased 8.4% more than other homes even slightly further away. The author of the study, Jeffrey Miron, said, “Concern that there would be a dire effect hasn’t played out. Our research also shows that the small effects have been relatively benign.”[v] Marcus Johnson, vice president of The Appraisers Group in Boston, said for appraisal purposes a home close to a dispensary, “looks similar to being close to a coffee shop, which most people see as a benefit.”[vi] Marijuana dispensaries are not the dens of iniquity many feared, and instead are seen as  desirable amenities.

So, if medical marijuana dispensaries are not allowed to be located near schools, parks, recreation centers, or libraries, where will they go?

A study by University of Colorado Denver published in the Journal of the American Planning Association found that such regulations disproportionately push dispensaries toward poorer, more ethnically and racially diverse areas.[vii] Whiter, wealthier communities have more resources at hand and can afford more parks and schools than poorer areas. Whiter, wealthier individuals may have more influence with zoning boards. But whatever the reason, the result is clear: medical marijuana dispensaries are moving into poorer and more diverse neighborhoods.

What’s the problem with that?

On the surface, the introduction of a new industry into an under-resourced community seems beneficial. It provides new jobs and more foot traffic to the community. Soon after, new businesses will move in and serve the new clientele from wealthier neighborhoods. Coffee shops and cafes will move into the area. As result, property values will rise. Building owners, sensing profit, raise the rent on their properties or sell them entirely.  Property taxes rise. Local minority-owned-business and longtime residents, unable to keep up with the cost of rent or tax, are forced out of the neighborhood. Wealthier visitors to the neighborhood will applaud this as a neighborhood getting safter when in actuality, it was a community being displaced. Essentially, this is the process of gentrification at work.

And still, marijuana laws are enforced unequally.

The American Civil Liberties Union published a study in April of 2020 that found Black people are almost four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession nationwide.[viii] In Pennsylvania, Black people are still three times more likely than white people for marijuana possession.[ix] In some Pennsylvania counties, Black people are up to twenty-eight times more likely to get arrested for marijuana possession.

For generations, under-resourced communities and communities of Color have disproportionately suffered under marijuana prohibition. Now, too, they must deal with the consequences of legalization. Communities have been hobbled and families broken by arrest of those who illegally possessed marijuana. Now, they can be forced out of their homes by legally sold marijuana too.

Pennsylvania has taken some steps to try to reconcile past marijuana-related injustices. Governor Tom Wolf and Lt. Governor John Fetterman have implemented a new expungement program which intends to expedite the pardons of low-level marijuana offenses. Governor Wolf has pardoned ninety-six people for marijuana convictions as of July of 2021. But large-scale changes, like the introduction of brand-new industry into the Commonwealth, should provoke lawmakers to address problems with the old system. For too long, marijuana has been used as a tool to disenfranchise and imprison minorities.

So, what’s next?

Pennsylvania lawmakers are preparing to introduce a bill that would authorize the full legalization of recreational marijuana. Full legalization might decrease the number of arrests overall, but unless the bill accounts for past wrongs and attempts to prevent future injustices, it will not solve any of the deeper problems in Pennsylvania. Forward-looking lawmakers should seek to allocate marijuana tax revenue back into these communities. The money should go to subsidizing increased rents and property taxes, funding better education and after school programs and staring youth athletic leagues and arts programs. Most importantly, lawmakers should include the members of these communities when crafting legislation that provides permits.