“Gray zone” is a military term for the space between peace and war, a time and place that provides opportunities for the well-armed while posing dangers for citizens caught in the middle.    

In California today, I think the phrase explains the perilous condition of our communities as the state pursues major changes in how we regulate drugs, respond to homelessness, and sentence criminals. 

In these policy areas, California voters have righteously demanded major transitions that move people out of the darkness of illegal drug sales, sleeping on the street, and lives stalled by criminal records—and into the light of legal cannabis businesses, permanent housing, and second chances for ex-cons.  

But California governments are struggling to complete these transitions. As a result, too many people get caught in the gray zone between black market and white market, between illegal and legal, between street and home. 

Why are these transitions so challenging? One reason is that they pose a paradox. When you are pulling people across a societal dividing line, you can’t simply erase the line. You must maintain enough of a border to keep those you wish to aid from going back. 

This paradox is seen clearly in California’s faltering shift to legal cannabis. For years, the state tolerated a growing multi-billion-dollar black market for recreational cannabis.

So the 2016 vote to legalize recreational cannabis posed a conundrum, with our governments forced to accomplish two seemingly contradictory feats. First, they had to build a new regulatory regime for  a new legal market. But second, to make sure that black market participants would move into that legal market, they had to enforce laws against cannabis that they had ignored in the past. 

So far, California has failed to meet either challenge. Many communities have resisted developing a welcoming structure of rules and permits for legal cannabis, while state taxes have added to the costs of going legal. And instead of doing more to enforce laws against black market operators, localities have mostly looked the other way. 

These twin failures have landed many cannabis businesses in a gray zone between the illegal and legal markets. Those who want to start new legal businesses are discouraged. And black marketeers take just enough steps to appear semi-legal, without joining the legal market. According to one analysis, this gray market of California cannabis is now entrenched, with $5.5 billion in revenues last year—far more than the legal market’s $3.7 billion. 

A similar dynamic is developing in homeless policy. State and local governments have sought to decriminalize homelessness. Instead of making demands that homeless people change their behavior,  our governments want to put people into housing first, and then help them with other problems.

But the transition to housing-first policy has stalled. Building housing is so costly and time-consuming that we don’t have the homeless housing we need. The result has been more visible homelessness—and rising frustration from Californians who voted for billions of dollars for homeless housing.

A comparable paradox dogs the state’s transition away from long sentences and mass incarceration. In this decade, Californians have approved two ballot measures. Prop 47 reduced penalties for non-violent crimes and allowed felons to have prior crimes reclassified as misdemeanors to make it easier to get jobs and benefits. Prop 57, approved in 2016, allowed for parole for non-violent offenders. 

While these new policies were bold, the state has been timid about actually supporting people who want to rebuild their lives. Gov. Jerry Brown resisted calls for greater funding for programs—from counseling to training—to help felons re-enter the legal economy. 

As a result, too many California are now stuck in a gray zone—no longer in prison, but unable to make a transition into legitimate economic life. A Public Policy Institute of California study found a potential connection between Prop 47 and a recent increase in larceny and thefts across the state. 

Californians desperately need to look at these gray zones—and then look in the mirror. We’ve grown too comfortable in the gray zones.

We can’t just declare grand new transitions in social policy at the ballot box. We actually must spend the money and enforce the laws necessary to complete what we promised. Otherwise, we’re just disrupting the lives of less fortunate Californians with our half-finished plans.

The biggest gray zone in California now is the space between our good intentions—and our realities. 

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.