Opinion: Cannabis Tax Revenues Are Going to Police Budgets, Not Communities

A cannabis dispensary in San Francisco, which is one of a handful of cities in California that is working to help communities of color capture some of the wealth generated by the cannabis industry, according to the report cited by the authors. Photo by David Tran.

As cries to “defund the police” reverberate across the country, cities are looking at ways to shift funds from policing into communities. In California, tax revenues from marijuana should be a clear point of entry. When voters legalized cannabis in 2016, they expected the taxes would be invested in communities that were adversely impacted by the war on drugs. Instead, a new report finds that these revenues are actually funding the police.

The report, California Cannabis Tax Revenues: A Windfall for Law Enforcement or An Opportunity for Healing, which was authored by Youth Forward and Getting It Right from the Start, looks at 28 cities across California that collect cannabis-related tax revenue. It turns out that from the time Proposition 64 was passed to fiscal year 2019-20, 23 of the 28 cities analyzed saw double-digit increases in the amount of general-fund money going into their police budgets. Eight of the 28 cities saw their police budgets grow by at least 25 percent. Overall, the average shift in police budgets for these 28 cities was an increase of 19 percent over that three-year period.

One reason for this is that the revenue collected from cannabis in nearly all these cities (the one exception being Shasta Lake) goes into the general fund, where the largest chunk of spending goes toward police departments. Another reason is that a number of cities are directing these tax revenues toward special units focused on cannabis enforcement, setting the stage for a war on drugs 2.0.

Law enforcement is now beginning to “crack down” on unlicensed vendors, most of whom are people of color. For example, San Diego uses cannabis tax revenues for “enforcement of marijuana laws” and “proactively cracking down on illegal operators.” And Los Angeles allocates millions of their revenues toward the police overtime fund to “investigate and enforce laws relative to illegal cannabis businesses” among other law enforcement functions.

The tragic irony of this is that cannabis tax revenues are now continuing the historic pattern of arrests for nonviolent drug offenses that have disproportionately harmed communities of color for decades. As recently as 2013, Black people were arrested more than twice as often as white people for cannabis offenses, and by 2018 people of color comprised 75 percent of cannabis arrests. Though marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, Blacks are nearly 4 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

We need to ensure that cannabis tax revenues go toward policies, practices and services that repair harm rather than increase it. While the state government has invested some cannabis tax revenues into funding for job training, mental health, legal services and other community needs, cities can and should do better. Local policymakers should take the following actions:

  • Invest cannabis revenues in the communities most impacted by the war on drugs. Prop 64 revenues should prioritize communities most impacted by the war on drugs, particularly African American communities, as well as Latinx and immigrant communities that have suffered disproportionate arrests and convictions for marijuana-related and other drug crimes. For decades, this inequitable enforcement regime drove families into poverty, separated parents and children, and placed huge obstacles to gaining employment, securing housing, and pursuing education for those with felony drug convictions—all of which contribute to health inequities.
  • Fund communities, not police. These investments should seek to improve health and wellbeing, reduce inequity, and prevent the risk or likelihood of experiencing substance misuse and addiction. For example, Monterey County used their cannabis revenues in 2019-20 for early childhood education and intervention programs, a homeless shelter and the Whole Person Care program, which provides comprehensive case-management services to those experiencing homelessness, or who have mental health issues, substance use disorders or multiple chronic diseases.
  • Increase economic opportunities for Black and Brown communities. Many communities of color that have been hit hard by the war on drugs are home to people who are struggling to get access to jobs due to prior convictions for drug offenses. Local officials should expand programs to help people with prior convictions to expunge their criminal records. People who have their records cleared can experience up to a 33 percent increase in their earning potential. Additionally, going forward, the state should prioritize these communities in all cannabis licensing opportunities.

As our country grapples with its history of racism, and especially its expression in the form of police violence, we should not pad police budgets with cannabis tax revenues. Those funds should go toward housing security, job training, mental health programs, youth development and other policies that create true health and safety in the communities traumatized by the racist war on drugs.

Sarah-Michael Gaston is a policy advocate at Youth Forward, which co-authored the report, California Cannabis Tax Revenues: A Windfall for Law Enforcement or An Opportunity for Healing.

Juliet Sims is an associate program director at Prevention Institute.

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