Emerald New Deal organizers Gamila Abdehalim and former organizer Ben Toney canvas door-to-door in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Updated on July 15: The City Council voted not to place the Emerald New Deal on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Original story, July 6: A plan to dedicate cannabis tax revenue to programs intended to repair harms caused by the war on drugs ran up against more criticism Tuesday at the Oakland City Council meeting. A final vote on the proposal was pushed to July 11.

Called the “Emerald New Deal” by its proponents, the measure would redirect all of Oakland’s cannabis business tax revenue, about $7 million per year, out of Oakland’s general fund and place it in a new restricted fund that would be dedicated to paying for services benefitting communities harmed by decades of enforcement of harsh drug laws. The measure would fund services such as 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 manage these funds and make sure they aren’t misspent. 

But not everyone thinks the Emerald New Deal is the best way for Oakland to help communities harmed by the war on drugs. Skeptics, including several councilmembers, have pointed out in previous council meetings that Oakland already funds many of the programs mentioned in the Emerald New Deal legislation. Some also object to restricting the city’s use of cannabis tax revenue. The city also already supports equity businesses through preferential access to cannabis business licenses, loans and grants, access to industrial space, and more.

Some still think more is needed to overcome decades of harm. Bryce Savoy, co-owner of family-run equity business Euphorium, said he supports the Emerald New Deal plan because equity business owners are in need of more financial support. “We’re very fortunate to have loyal clients who continue to support us no matter what, but it’s becoming increasingly harder to operate,” Savoy said. 

One of the main struggles that Oakland’s equity business owners face is generating enough revenue to pay the cannabis tax while also turning a profit. According to the city’s 2022 cannabis tax rate chart, equity businesses of all types who make less than $1.2 million pay a gross receipts tax of 0.12%. 

Savoy says that the city has been helpful in providing emergency grants to cannabis businesses that were burglarized in 2020, though burglaries continue to be a problem. According to Savoy, mom-and-pop cannabis businesses can barely cover the cost of taxes and keeping their establishments safe. “It’s hard enough to run an equity business but then you have larger companies who have the capital and you have to compete with them.”

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 main backers. Councilmembers Treva Reid and Noel Gallo, who also represent districts in East Oakland, are listed as co-sponsors of the measure. 

Emerald New Deal organizers Gamila Abdehalim and Charles Reed gave a presentation at Tuesday’s council meeting to try to convince the rest of the council to place the measure on the ballot.

“The city just announced that racism is a public health crisis, and the Emerald New Deal represents an opportunity to remedy the harms of that crisis,” Reed told the council. 

“We have got to start somewhere, and this is a good start right here to show that we are committed to supporting the Black community and the Latino community that have been impacted by the war on drugs,” Councilmember Taylor said. 

“We talk about race and equity a lot but we’ve been paying the price for years,” Councilmember Gallo said. “Let’s give back to our neighborhoods and the community.” 

North Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb said he and others have concerns about moving millions of dollars from the general fund to a separate fund. He suggested the possibility of dedicating a smaller portion of the cannabis tax revenue instead of all of it. 

West Oakland Councilmember Carroll Fife expressed skepticism of the Emerald New Deal organizer’s advertising tactics. Fife alleged that there have been instances where flyers were passed out to West Oakland residents with logos of local nonprofits such as Urban Peace Movement. She said these organizations reached out to her saying they weren’t supporting the measure. Fife said she remains skeptical that the Emerald New Deal is the best plan for helping communities harmed by the war on drugs.

“I don’t believe this is the way to do it but I’m willing to continue this discussion next week,” she said. 

Chaney Turner, the commissioner of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission and founder of Beyond Equity, said in an interview with The Oaklandside that growing up in East Oakland she experienced the war on drugs firsthand. “My mom was an addict and so were others in my family. I have witnessed raids on my block and my house being busted into by police,” Turner said. Although Turner agrees that longterm financial investment needs to be made in order to help rebuild Black and Brown neighborhoods in Oakland, they think the Emerald New Deal isn’t clear enough on how it plans to distribute the funds and which organizations will be hired to implement these services. 

“The vote needs to be a no. There needs to be a going back to the drawing board, there needs to be an inclusion of other organizations that are directly working with impacted communities that have been harmed by the war on drugs,” Turner said.

Others like Zach Goldman, policy director for IFPTE Local 21, a union that represents city employees, pointed out during public comment that withdrawing millions of dollars in cannabis business tax revenue would negatively impact city services that rely on funding from the city budget. “The Emerald New Deal provides no new funding for city services, and provides no new alternatives to substitute this funding,” Goldman said. 

Other residents who called into the meeting to share their thoughts voiced their support for the proposed ballot measure. 

“The reallocation of these funds will greatly impact Black and brown communities [in a positive way], so please put this measure onto the ballot in November,” Russel Arelis said during the meeting. 

“Marijuana may be legal now, but people are still reeling from years of racist policies that have harmed Black and brown communities,” Lina Salam said during the meeting.

The council voted to hold another discussion and vote on the proposal on Monday, July 11.

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.