Unlicensed cannabis retailers are disproportionately setting up shop in California communities with higher percentages of Black and Latino residents, according to a new study by health experts from USC.
That means, nearly four years after the state voted to license recreational cannabis businesses, residents of minority neighborhoods still have easier access to marijuana products that are highly potent, less likely to be tested for safety, don’t have child-safe packaging and are often cheaper than the highly regulated products found in licensed marijuana stores. Researchers say such access could worsen existing health disparities for minority and poor communities.
Previous studies have shown that a similar pattern of locating disproportionate numbers of liquor and tobacco retailers in lower-income neighborhoods has harmed the health of people living in those communities.
The USC study also found California neighborhoods that host only licensed cannabis shops tend to be more White than places that have at least some unlicensed stores. The finding suggests regulators in less diverse communities are doing more to police the industry and pave the way for businesses that can afford to enter the pricey regulated market.
But it’s too soon to say whether the licensed cannabis industry is following a similar pattern of concentrating in diverse neighborhoods, according to Jennifer Unger, a professor of preventive medicine at USC who headed up the study.
Licenses have been issued only since January 2018. And Unger noted there are many factors at play, including city restrictions on where marijuana shops are allowed and social equity programs that incentivize cannabis entrepreneurs to open in communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
Rather than having a problem with a saturation of licensed shops anywhere in California, industry advocates say the USC study shows that access to regulated marijuana products remains the problem, with less than 8% of the state’s population living within a few miles of licensed shops alone.
The USC study found California had 448 licensed and 662 unlicensed marijuana shops as of October 2018, with a particular concentration of illicit shops in diverse Southern California communities.
Neighborhoods with cannabis shops of all types had significantly higher proportions of Hispanic residents than neighborhoods without any marijuana stores, at 46% vs. 33%. They also had more Black residents (8% vs. 4%) and residents living below the poverty level (18% vs. 13%). And they had significantly lower proportions of white residents, at 29% vs. 44%.
The study also found that illicit shops are more likely to open in unincorporated communities, which are under county control and may not have the same resources and targeted cannabis-control enforcement as cities.
Such studies come as no surprise to people like Armando Gudiño, California policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, which championed the state’s 2016 legalization measure Proposition 64 and advocates for drug policy reform.
“There’s this perception out there that now that we’ve regulated cannabis and made things all right that somehow the inequities and impacts that have existed for generations will immediately go away,” Gudiño said.
Instead, he said some of the inequities created by the war on drugs have at least temporarily become more pronounced.
Poorer communities, for example, are often some of the first to welcome cannabis shops in hopes of capturing the tax revenue the industry can bring, giving those places a higher number of licensed businesses. But those cites also have fewer resources to pursue unlicensed sellers, leaving those two markets to compete against each other.
Meanwhile, minority business owners have more trouble accessing the capital needed to set up a licensed business. Some industry veterans who worked for years in California’s pseudo-legal medical marijuana market still haven’t been able to make the leap to the regulated industry, so they continue to run illicit businesses in their communities.
Social equity programs are supposed to help close some of those gaps, but they’ve struggled to get off the ground in places like Los Angeles.
To stop unlicensed sellers from preying on poor and minority communities and balance out the industry, Unger said regulators need to step up enforcement of the illicit market. And both Gudiño and Unger said more cities need to regulate, rather than ban, cannabis shops.
“If you want to begin to address some of these concerns, then create a responsible regulation and licensing system that doesn’t allow this to happen,” Gudiño said.
Source: Orange County Register