The City of Oakland should be rightfully proud of its landmark cannabis equity program. The social justice program is intended to help mitigate decades of disproportionate marijuana arrests and incarceration of Black and Brown individuals. It requires that applicants for cannabis business licenses who suffered cannabis-related legal repercussions during the war on drugs receive half of all business licenses issued in the city. It also gives them access to no-interest startup loans subsidized by cannabis tax revenue. Sacramento took similar steps with the CORE Program, which similarly aims to address the aftermath of historical disparities in enforcement. 

Given that African Americans make up only 6% of California’s population, but represent almost a quarter of those incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses, the intent behind the program is solid — even if progress is slow.

Social justice and equity for cannabis entrepreneurs is incredibly important, but the health of cannabis consumers is also critical to our community. As the city moves forward on cannabis licensing, we must make consumer safety for those who use cannabis for medical or recreational purposes a priority. 

We know that African Americans have long been victims of disparities in coverage and care, and lag behind on health outcomes for many chronic diseases, including stroke, asthma, and diabetes, among many others. As recreational cannabis use increases, we have the opportunity to educate black cannabis consumers on the health and safety risks of buying product from the non-legal market, and encourage them to purchase cannabis from licensed operators only.

Contaminated marijuana is a significant and pervasive health risk. In 2018, researchers and authorities found that nine of every 10 illegal marijuana farms raided in California contained traces of potentially lethal pesticides. Untested cannabis can also contain bacteria, mold, metals, mite infestation, solvents, fecal matter, and many other contaminants — which is part of the reason such products are cheaper.

Cannabis products sold in the legal market are subject to lab-testing, ensuring they don’t contain harmful chemicals and impurities, and that they meet quality and packaging standards. Since there is no way of regulating operators in the illegal market, their products are not subject to state lab-testing, nor are there protections for consumers that are negatively impacted. 

The health risks of using contaminated product are serious. A 2013 Journal of Toxicology study found that in the burning of cannabis plants, up to nearly 70% of the pesticide residue present on the plant can transfer into the smoke inhaled by the user. Exposure to lead metal can contribute to high blood pressure and heart problems, and an increased risk of neurological impairment. Fecal matter and e. coli, two common contaminants that hardly need health risks explained, can be especially dangerous for people with compromised immune systems.

The bottom line is that we must educate our community on how consumers can best protect themselves, and why it’s so essential that minority communities lead the charge as California moves to a legal cannabis culture.

The Bureau of Cannabis Control, the state agency charged with regulating commercial cannabis licenses for medical and adult-use cannabis in California, has taken steps to help consumers know where to purchase legal cannabis. The newly-launched “Get #weedwise” campaign explains the differences between licensed and illegal operators and allows consumers to check the licensing status of shops, distributors, and delivery businesses through the search tool. The campaign will also produce educational videos and other resources to help business owners learn about the benefits of licensure and provide them with tools to educate consumers in their own communities, which are available on the Bureau’s website.

I trust that the city’s social justice permitting program will succeed, even if it takes time. By helping to support community cannabis businesses to obtain a state-license and discouraging illegal sellers from operating in our local communities, we can protect the health, safety, and economic well-being of a new generation of African-Americans as we work to build a new legal culture together.

Dr. Angelo Williams is Deputy Director of the California Black Health Network, a non-profit organization that advocates for health equity and supports the creation of optimal conditions needed to sustain and improve Black life.