Emerald New Deal organizers door-knocking in East Oakland's seminary neighborhood. From right: Charles Reed, Gamila Abdelhalim, Shawna Norman, Ben Toney. Credit: Amir Aziz

A proposed ballot measure, the Emerald New Deal, promises to repair the negative impacts that the war on drugs has had on Oakland’s Black and brown communities. The organizers behind the measure have secured some influential endorsements from local community organizations and several city councilmembers. But the last hurdle before the measure ends up on the ballot for voters to decide is getting approval from the entire City Council. 

Since last month, the council has deliberated over the plan a handful of times. It’s not clear the measure will be advanced though. While virtually everyone agrees on the premise of addressing the harms done to communities of color through the strict enforcement of drug laws, some are skeptical of the Emerald New Deal is the right way of doing this.

The City Council continued this debate at last Thursday’s rules and legislation meeting. The Emerald New Deal would redirect the entirety of Oakland’s cannabis business tax revenue, or about $7 million annually, out of Oakland’s general fund and place it in a new restricted fund called the “END HARM Fund” to pay for services targeting communities harmed by the war on drugs. These services would include mental health, reentry services, housing assistance, and economic development. It would also increase financial support for equity cannabis businesses, which are those owned by Oakland residents who can demonstrate they’re from a community that was harmed by the war on drugs. 

A new oversight commission would be created to manage these funds and make sure they aren’t misspent. 

Charles Reed and Gamila Abdehalim, two organizers with the Emerald New Deal campaign, have pressed the City Council in recent months to advance the measure for voter approval. “The Emerald New Deal was born from the hearts and minds of the people who were affected by the War on Drugs the most,” Reed said during last week’s council committee meeting. 

In-Advance initative, an Oakland-based non-profit that also manages the Sugar Freedom Project, is responsible for the campaign’s inception. 

The war on drugs describes the U.S’s decades-long attempt to stop the use and sale of illegal drugs by imposing harsh prison sentences on both drug dealers and users. These policies disproportionately affected Black and Brown communities in cities like Oakland where many thousands of people were arrested and incarcerated over the span of several decades. 

The Emerald New Deal has received the endorsement of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, the city board charged with making recommendations to the council on matters of the cannabis industry. District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor introduced the ballot measure and is one of its key backers. Councilmembers Treva Reid and Noel Gallo, also from East Oakland, are listed as co-sponsors of the measure. 

“I think we’ve reached out to every single cannabis business, community organization, labor unions, and asked them to contribute their opinion,” Abdehalim said.

Some councilmembers are concerned that the proposed measure might negatively affect the city’s general fund, the largest pot of money in Oakland’s budget that the council has the flexibility to spend how it sees. Other funds in the city budget are restricted, limiting the ability of the council to make adjustments when recessions happen. The city also already funds some of the services and programs the Emerald New Deal would be dedicated to.

Councilmember Dan Kalb asked at last week’s rules committee meeting whether the city knows how much it currently spends on the same services and programs the Emerald New Deal would pay for. 

Councilmember Carroll Fife inquired about which organizations will be tasked with using cannabis tax funding to implement these services, how these groups would be chosen, and what specific ways they will serve the needs of communities affected by the war on drugs. Fife also requested a race and equity analysis report on the impact of this legislation. 

Dozens of Oakland residents called in to voice their concerns and support for the initiative. 

Gene Hazzard, a city hall observer and frequent commenter at council meetings, urged council members to not put the Emerald New Deal on the November ballot. “It’s a sham, do not support that,” Hazard said during the public comment portion of the meeting. “It’s a slush fund that will put money into the hands of select organizations.” 

Dr. Cesar Cruz, co-founder of Homies Empowerment, a group that provides assistance to the community, said that East Oakland could benefit greatly from this initiative. “This tax that comes from marijuana sales is so needed in our community like mental health and job training, and I invite you to come to the area to see what’s happening on the ground and you’ll understand why we need that in our community.” 

The committee voted to continue the discussion of the Emerald New Deal proposal at the June 23 rules and legislation meeting, citing a need to have more of their questions answered.

“The policy has to be right because if it is not we will be letting down the people who are looking to us for answers,” Fife said.

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.