African Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested on marijuana charges as white people in Sacramento, a disparity black leaders cite as they argue that their community should receive special treatment when it comes to the city’s legal weed market next year.

The Sacramento City Council on Tuesday will consider a “Cannabis Equity Program” that for two years would provide financial and technical assistance and preferences in licensing for eligible minorities when retail sales of marijuana become legal statewide on Jan. 1. The plan also would provide incentives for businesses that predominantly hire workers with employment challenges, such as those with prior convictions, homeless people, high school dropouts and former foster children.

Oakland created the state’s first equity program last year, giving minorities an advantage in the medical marijuana market, and San Francisco and Los Angeles are considering similar programs.

Sacramento’s proposed equity policy says minorities have been “negatively and disproportionally affected by the war on drugs” and “are currently not participating in the development of cannabis-related business at the same rate of other communities.”

Black leaders argue that because many in their community have been criminalized through drug laws, society should look for ways to help them first now that some of those laws have been reversed in California.

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Keith Kemp, head of the Rancho Cordova cultivation business PK Solutions, said he’s had cousins and a stepbrother incarcerated on drug charges.

“Lives have been changed, families have been changed. Families didn’t see their fathers,” he told the Sacramento City Council recently. “You have an opportunity to right some wrongs.”

In a five-year period ending in 2016, black people in Sacramento were arrested for selling or possessing marijuana at a rate of 60 for every 10,000 in the population, The Sacramento Bee found in an analysis of data obtained from the Sacramento Police Department through a California Public Records Act Request. White people, by contrast, were arrested at a rate of 18 for every 10,000.

In a written statement, a Sacramento Police Department spokesman said the department “does not enforce laws based on physical characteristics, age, race, gender or an individual’s ethnicity,” and added that arrests reflect “community complaints and areas with increased crime.”

More than 200 people showed up recently for a “Cannabis Equity Summit” at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria downtown. Speakers heard about the barriers and opportunities in California’s legal marijuana market, with a big emphasis on the huge costs to start a new licensed business that one participant said is at least $1 million.

About 40 participants, including Betty Williams, president of the Sacramento NAACP, went over to City Hall to ask council members for their support at the start of a council meeting.

Merrell Sanchez, 45, says he needs a provision in the program to fully realize his goals in the legal marijuana business. Sanchez has spent much of the last 20 years incarcerated on drug charges, a record that would prohibit him from working in the cannabis field in Sacramento under current city regulations.

“I’ve been in the industry and know it inside and out,” said Sanchez, wearing a black and red shirt with “BIG DREAMS” spelled across the front.

Drug dealing taught him about the business, he said, and he picked up useful knowledge studying marketing and horticulture at Cosumnes River College.

People convicted of a felony are currently prohibited from working in the cannabis business in Sacramento. Under the equity program, only those with certain felony convictions are potentially excluded, and they are entitled to a secondary review to determine if they might be eligible.

The equity program also would create a marijuana business support center to provide legal, technical, regulatory and other help for those wanting to enter the business. The center would start as a two-year pilot program and would serve minorities, women and veterans.

Eligible minorities could also receive waivers and deferrals of permit costs and faster processing of permit applications. The waiver for a conditional use permit would save them a minimum of $16,000 and a waiver for a operating permit would save them a minimum of $2,600.

“It is the right thing to do and it benefits the city and residents,” said the city’s pot czar, Joe Devlin.

Devlin’s proposal does not include a loan program or quotas for how many business licenses should go to minorities, although the black community has requested them. Those are features of Oakland’s equity program, and they’re being considered in other cities.

In Oakland, 50 percent of permits have been set aside for minorities who want to enter the commercial or medical marijuana business. Devlin said a likely alternative in Sacramento is to create a goal — and not a requirement — of 50 percent minority licensees.

Malaki Seku-Amen, who has been leading the equity movement in Sacramento, said the city’s proposal does not represent “the justice we fully earned and deserve.” He said more money should be set aside to help minorities get into the marijuana business.

Anita Chabria contributed to this story. Brad Branan

(c)2017 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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