The city wants to help level the economic playing field – with marijuana.

Last week, the City Council voted to open up Long Beach to sales of recreational pot. In doing so, the council also laid the groundwork for the creation of a program that, if successful, would provide access to the budding industry for those who would otherwise be locked out.

Under the soon-to-be-enacted social-equity program, those with arrests or convictions for weed-related crimes that are now legal in California – thanks to the passage of Proposition 64 – will qualify for certain benefits when trying to start marijuana businesses. Those benefits, which include fee waivers and an expedited permit process, will also apply to residents in low-income communities. And the program will require marijuana businesses, whether dispensaries or cultivators, to ensure 40 percent of their employees also meet those standards.

“We have a responsibility to build the community up,” said Councilman Rex Richardson, who represents District 9 in North Long Beach.

These social-equity initiatives, which are becoming increasingly common as more cities regulate the sale of recreational marijuana, often get framed in two ways – economics and race. But even though experts and officials say economics and race are not mutually exclusive, the way in which cities choose to frame policy discussions can lead to a difficult question: who, exactly, should these programs be helping? All low-income residents, or communities of color?

Or, as some suggest, is it a moot point? A host of historical and socioeconomic factors, after all, has led to most low-income neighborhoods also being predominantly African-American or Latino?

“There is an intersectionality with economic justice and race,” said Leon Andrews, the director of race, equity and leadership for the National League of Cities. “When you look at inequity – whether it is poverty, infant mortality, life expectancy – race is the overriding factor.”

When it comes to marijuana policy, it has long been known that minorities have borne the brunt of the war on drugs. One-third of black males will spend time in state or federal prison at some point in their lives, according to a 2014 Brookings Institution article by Jonathan Rothwell, now a senior economist for Gallup. That is more than five times higher than white males.

Blacks also remain 3.4 times more likely than whites to be arrested for selling drugs and 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for possessing drugs, he wrote. Latinos are also more likely than whites, though less likely than blacks, to be arrested for drug crimes.

“We know historically, when we look at the impact of marijuana laws,” Andrews said, “they have disproportionately impacted blacks and Latinos.”

That’s where social-equity programs come in, Andrews and others said.

Long Beach is the fifth large California city to create a social-equity program for the cannabis industry, joining Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco and Sacramento. But how they go about implementing the programs, and what they choose to emphasize, differs.

While both Oakland and Los Angeles incorporate economics into their programs, they both noted the higher incarceration rates for minorities, especially blacks, in the analyses they did before creating the initiatives.

“This condition,” Oakland officials wrote about the disparity in incarceration rates, “undermines the building of economic security and contributes to lives lived in poverty in communities of color at three to four times the rate for white residents.”

But Long Beach didn’t mention racial equity in its staff report from last week.

Rather, its social-equity program, in theory, focuses on economic equity. To qualify, you must:

  • Have an annual family income below 80 percent of the area’s median income and a net worth below $250,000;
  • and at least one of the following: an arrest or conviction for a citation or misdemeanor marijuana offense before the state passed its legalization of marijuana in 2016; or residency in a Long Beach census tract for at least three years where 51 percent or more of residents have a household income below 80 percent of the median income.

“The goal of cannabis social equity is to recognize and address the impact that federal and state cannabis enforcement policies have had on low income communities across the country,” the city’s staff report said. “Specifically, low income communities have experienced the greatest impact of arrests and convictions for low-level offenses such as cannabis use and possession.”

The different approaches, in a way, underscore how blurry the line can get between economic and racial justice – especially because the nation’s blacks and Latinos are twice as likely as whites to live in poverty, according to the United States Census Bureau.

“It’s a chicken and the egg question,” Richardson said. “Which came first, economic inequity or racial inequity?”

That question can also create heated discussions. The original plan for Long Beach, for example, was to have a 25 percent quota for equity hires. Simply put, one-quarter of all employees in marijuana businesses would either need to have been arrested or convicted for a marijuana crime, or live in a low-income area.

Low-income areas would largely be defined by maps created for the Community Development Block Grant, a federal program that funnels funds to at-need communities.

But at last week’s meeting, Richardson successfully petitioned to have that percentage raised to 40.

“Equity is not about equality,” Richardson said. “It’s about how best to balance the scales.”

But District 5 Councilwoman Stacy Mungo, who represents one of the wealthier areas of Long Beach and the only council member to vote no on the recreational marijuana ordinance, protested that 40 percent was too high and would become a barrier to employment for low-income folks in non-CDBG areas. She also added that because the local economy is booming, it would be difficult for businesses to meet that 40 percent mark.

“The goal of the city,” Mungo said, “is to raise up all people.”

Mungo, who noted she approves of social-equity programs to help even out racial injustice, said she’d prefer the program to be more about local hires, similar to what Los Angeles does, where businesses would be forced to hire a certain percentage of people who live in the immediate area. Her district, which has only a sliver of a CDBG area, has six dispensaries.

“If I have a 25-year-old living in their parents’ home without a job,” she said, “they won’t qualify for the program even though they are low-income.”

That speaks to a contradiction in the new social-equity program. The city’s official position is that it is not meant to balance the scales of racial inequity.

“We talked about race and took direction from the City Council,” said Ajay Kolluri, the city’s cannabis program manager. “We looked at equity and how we defined it was through economic equity.”

But by basing who will qualify for the program on the CDBG map, the city has ensured that, if the program is successful, minority communities would see the biggest boost, based on data.

There are more than 60 census tracts in Long Beach that are entirely or mostly within a CDBG area, according to an analysis by the Press-Telegram. Of those, the vast majority – 77 percent – are composed of a higher percentage, by far, of blacks and Latinos than the city as a whole. Only a handful of the tracts, mostly in District 3, were majority white.

And based on Census data, most of the households in those tracts fell below the area median income for the Los Angeles area.

“This is a chance for us to correct some of the wrongs of the past,” said District 8 Councilman Al Austin, who had to miss Tuesday’s meeting, but said last week he supported the program. “I think it’s about racial equity, but it is economic in terms of policy.”