As cannabis laws across America continue to soften, states and local communities are beginning to come to terms with the destruction wreaked by the war on drugs, especially on black communities.
Some cities are already beginning to make amends by going beyond mere legalization. They have started the process of overturning thousands of cannabis-related convictions. These policies would never manifest, however, without the help of activists who take their passion for social justice from the protests outside of city halls to the offices within them.
Cat Packer, who was recently appointed as the executive director of Los Angeles’s newly formed Department of Cannabis Regulation, has been given a unique opportunity to help create pot policy for one of the largest cities on the planet. As a woman of color with a background in drug policy reform, Packer is hyper-aware of the negative impact of past drug laws and the challenges those miscarriages of justice will present for her going forward.
I spoke to Packer to discuss how she plans to navigate the bureaucratic era of legal pot through the lens of activism and empathy.
VICE: What first compelled you to get involved with drug policy activism?
Cat Packer: I immediately got involved with cannabis policy reform after graduating from law school at Ohio State University. While I was there I took a marijuana law and policy course, and it sparked my interest as a cannabis policy advocate. I realized the impact cannabis policy had on communities, and I really wanted to get involved in making sure that new cannabis policies were grounded in more than just fear. I also wanted to bring some education and reason to the conversation.
I participated in a marijuana legalization effort in Ohio, and, after that legalization effort failed, I began to reevaluate what was going on in Ohio in terms of cannabis policy reform, and what was going on around the country. I understood that a lot of the same issues that community members were facing in Ohio, folks were facing all around the country. So I got connected with the Drug Policy Alliance [DPA], and after connecting with some of their leadership, I was asked to come out to Los Angeles and serve as the campaign coordinator for Californians for Responsible Marijuana Reform.
Was this a sort of pipeline from championing a cause to actual policy making devised for you by the DPA? Would you recommend this sort of path to others who are passionate about reform?
To be honest, I don’t think this trajectory was really mapped out. I think there are a lot of different ways that folks have found themselves involved in cannabis policy, but mine was actually driven by passion and the understanding that, if we can get cannabis policy right here in California, then it’s likely the dominos would fall and we could get cannabis policy correct all across America.
LA is now the largest pot-friendly city in America. With that distinction and the rest of the country’s eyes on us, what sort of expectations or pressures are you fielding from others or putting upon yourself?
It's not really secret that Los Angeles has an opportunity to be a leader in cannabis policy. It’s going to be interesting because, as the largest city to take on this regulatory responsibility, and as a place that’s often regarded as the largest cannabis market in the world, we understand that cannabis and its impact are probably going to be felt the heaviest here.
We have communities here who have had very negative experiences, not only with cannabis policy, but are looking for a way forward. Voters across California and in the city of Los Angeles have voted overwhelmingly in support of responsible regulation and moving away from criminalization. That’s a huge shift in public opinion, and it’s a huge shift in public policy, and it’s going to take us some time to implement this policy effectively, but we’ve been given directions from voters, so we want to do everything we can to set up a responsible framework.
With many [dispensaries] having operated in a legally gray area for so long, what kind of resistance to this regulatory shift are you encountering and what are you doing to ensure it isn't just favoring large entities with the funds to quickly become compliant and crushing the small businesses currently operating in LA’s cannabis space?
There are folks on all sides of the spectrum, as to be expected. There are folks who are frustrated with the process, folks who are excited about the economic opportunity that comes from business ownership and jobs and opportunity. But I think that folks are realizing that this is a first-time policy for the city of Los Angeles, and we’re trying to make sure we do it the right way. One of the things we’re prioritizing is social equity.
We’re making sure that within these new cannabis laws and policies, we take a moment to look at these issues through a social justice lens. We have an opportunity to, at the very least, address the harm that communities here have experienced as a part of the enforcement of the war on drugs and as a part of the disproportionate enforcement of cannabis laws against certain communities. So we want to take a moment to acknowledge those communities and do what we can, as a city, to give folks meaningful access to what is going to be a multimillion dollar industry.
Could you break down in layman’s terms why, though recreational cannabis is now legalized, people probably can’t go to the dispensary and buy recreational cannabis with their medical license?
We’re experiencing a transition. We’re moving from a system where no businesses have been regulated at all in this industry to what will be a highly and comprehensively regulated industry. For consumers, that means there’s going to be impact to their everyday interactions. The intention is to set up consumer protection.
In a regulatory framework, we have a situation in which we’re able to collect tax dollars from the regulated cannabis businesses that support city services, we’re able to keep cannabis in areas where youth aren’t able to readily access the products, and folks are able to get honest information about the products they’re getting their hands on. We understand that there is going to be a period of time where folks might not be able to readily identify a cannabis business, but I think, at this point, we’ve moved beyond that conversation here in the city of Los Angeles. We do have a number of [recreational] businesses that have received their temporary approval from the city, so we’re moving this conversation along. We’re just taking our first steps into this regulatory program, though, so folks should expect that there will be delays along the way.
Can you foresee a future for California or LA where the framework that has allowed for a softening stance on cannabis carries over to other illicit substances?
We’re starting to have those conversations, and, of course, there are organizations like the DPA that are advocating for the reform of drug policy laws across the spectrum. But I think the direction the city is taking is based on what the voters have asked for. We’re going to continue to have conversations as a society as to what drug laws and policy make sense, but we’ve already been given clear directions about cannabis.
Finally, I have to ask about your personal relationship with cannabis over the years. How does one square the impulses to maintain privacy and uphold an old-fashioned standard of professionalism with the necessity of normalizing and destigmatizing cannabis use?
The important thing to remember here when we’re talking about adult-use cannabis, is adults having the responsibility to make a decision about what types of substances they put in their body.
In terms of conversations about whether folks are able to admit they use cannabis or not, I think those are going to be personal decisions based on the context of the situation. And because we’re in a moment of transition, we also have to be honest and say that part of being a responsible adult might be maintaining some sense of privacy about whether you use cannabis at all.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here.
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