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Marijuana legalization divides Latinos

As five states prepare to vote on ballot measures to legalize the drug, Hispanics remain divided over how to vote. In Arizona, California and Nevada, Latinos could have an especially big impact on these measures.
27 Oct 2016 – 09:49 PM EDT
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 19: Dave Warden, a bud tender at Private Organic Therapy (P.O.T.), a non-profit co-operative medical marijuana dispensary, displays various types of marijuana available to patients on October 19, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Attorney General Eric Holder announced new guidelines today for federal prosecutors in states where the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes is allowed under state law. Federal prosecutors will no longer trump the state with raids on the southern California dispensaries as they had been doing, but Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley recently began a crackdown campaign that will include raids against the facilities. Cooley maintains that virtually all marijuana dispensaries are in violation of the law because they profit from their product. The city of LA has been slow to come to agreement on how to regulate its 800 to 1,000 dispensaries. Californians voted to allow sick people with referrals from doctors to consume cannabis with the passage of state ballot Proposition 215 in 1996 and a total of 14 states now allow the medicinal use of marijuana. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images) Crédito: Getty Images

When Cristina Alfonso-Zea, 30, left the military in 2010 after several tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, her life spiraled. The Las Vegas, Nevada, resident suffered from debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder, became addicted to drugs and tried to commit suicide four times. "I wasn't me," she says.

But then she discovered medical marijuana, and it helped her so much that she started her own organization to help other vets treat their PTSD with cannabis. "I've suffered so much," she says, now "I can show a light to other people that you can live a normal life."

Alfonso-Zea is one of many Latinos who will vote Nov. 8 in favor of making it easier to consume marijuana.

Currently, marijuana is legal for recreational use in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia, while 25 states allow the use of medical of marijuana.

This election, voters in five states -- Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada -- will decide on legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota will vote on legalizing medical marijuana, while Montana will vote on making it easier for doctors to prescribe medical marijuana.

In three states in particular -- California, where Latinos are the largest ethnic group, and Arizona and Nevada, where Hispanics make up nearly a third of the population -- Latinos could have a decisive impact on deciding on legalization.

But Latinos are divided on the issue -- and so are their votes.

Split opinions

In Nevada, 48 percent of Latinos oppose legalization versus 47 percent for, and in Arizona, 49 percent are for legalization versus 42 percent against, according to results of a September Univision poll by Bendixen & Amandi International and The Tarrance Group.

In California, however, a greater proportion of Latinos favor legalization: an August Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley poll found 69 percent of Latinos support legalization.

Nationally, support for legal marijuana is on the rise: some 60 percent of Americans now think marijuana should be legal, compared to just 36 percent in 2005, according to Gallup. Support for legalization is highest among millennials and Independents. (This year, almost half of eligible Latino voters are millennials.)

Alfonso-Zea said she's seen how the issue has divided Hispanics. "The Latino community has a lot riding on it," she said. "It's all about exposure, about learning and just having that bridge of communication. A lot of Hispanics are just misinformed."

There's also a stigma associated with the drug and Latinos, particularly Mexican Americans. Plus, the Catholic Church has also expressed opposition.

"In our minds, marijuana is associated with something negative; there's a prejudice against marijuana, that for many it's a damaging drug," said Claudia Noriega-Bernstein, a spokeswoman for the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol campaign in Nevada. "We have the experiences we've gone through in our countries and it makes us skeptical."

All about the money

Proponents of legalizing marijuana often highlight one of the main benefits: money.

Legalization advocates often point to Colorado as an example, where marijuana sales have generated $1 billion, earned $135 million in tax revenue, and created some 10,000 jobs.

"We're really missing out on a lot of revenue to create jobs, new businesses and generate tax revenues for schools," said Carlos Alfaro, Arizona political director at the Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization that lobbies for reforming marijuana laws. "All of that money is going to drug cartels and illegal drug dealers in our communities."

While the state ranks among the lowest in the nation in terms of education funding, Arizona's "Yes" proponents argue the measure would generate $55 million for public schools.

Nevada legalization proponents say the state could earn more than $150 million for education between 2018 and 2024, generate more than 6,000 jobs and raise some $464 million a year in taxes.

California could generate $1 billion a year from marijuana tax revenue, legalization proponents say. It could also create 20,000 jobs and $4.2 billion in business if the state becomes a major center for the marijuana industry, an October 2016 study by the University of the Pacific in Stockton found. (The research was commissioned by cannabis investment company Truth Enterprises.)

What both sides can agree on: social justice

There's consensus among supporters and opponents of legalization on one part of the marijuana puzzle: the high number of marijuana arrests and incarcerations of minorities must stop.

There are some 574,000 marijuana possession arrests each year in the U.S., according to the FBI. People of color tend to be targeted at a higher rate than whites; while federal data on Latinos is hard to come by, blacks are arrested for marijuana at nearly four times the rate as whites.

"For us this initiative is not about legalizing marijuana; it's about regulating a product that is in place in our communities," said Armando Gudiño, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance in California.

Proponents of legalization say it will redirect precious resources, since this kind of enforcement is expensive: the American Civil Liberties Union estimates enforcing marijuana laws costs some $3.6 billion a year.

"What we have right now is a system that disproportionately impacts communities of color," said Gudiño. "You're going to see a substantial amount of young people no longer being arrested.” Plus, he noted, Californians currently in prison on marijuana charges will able to petition for early release.

Combating the cartels

For Latinos, taking power away from powerful drug cartels that cause violence in their home countries would be a bonus of legalization -- and proponents claim legalization will cut into cartel profits.

“Is [legalization] hurting the cartels? Yes," former federal agent Terry Nelson told Vice. "The cartels are criminal organizations that were making as much as 35-40 percent of their income from marijuana. They aren’t able to move as much cannabis inside the U.S. now.”

In Sinaloa, Mexico, for example, marijuana farmers have stopped planting due to a drop in prices, the Washington Post reported. And a U.S Drug Enforcement Administration report showed a 23 percent decline in marijuana smuggling at the border in 2014.

But some experts say cartels have simply changed their strategy and have actually moved into Colorado.

"You don't have to bring product across the border to grow it closer to customer and save on distribution," said Jeffrey Zinsmeister, executive vice president at Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a group that advocates against marijuana legalization. "What you see is instead of displacement of the underground market, it gets set up in parallel … They feel they can do their work out in the open."

Earlier this month, Colorado officials seized more than $4 million worth of marijuana plants on a private property believed to be connected to a Mexican cartel -- the fourth such bust since 2012, the Denver Post reported.

Not in my backyard

For some Latinos, marijuana legalization is a not-in-my-backyard issue. "Many Americans don't want to see marijuana ads on TV or pot shops near where their kids are walking to school," said Zinsmeister.

That's especially true given that low-income minority communities have become the sites of marijuana cultivation and sales in places like California and Colorado.

"They're trying to have [marijuana] grown and sold in the Latino neighborhoods so whites can come in and buy their things and get high," said Hector Barajas, a California GOP strategist and a spokesman for No on 64.

Even before the legalization vote, marijuana production centers and dispensaries are already a reality in California. But Hispanic communities aren't always happy when they are chosen to host these businesses. In September, dozens of Latinos protested in Maywood, in southeast Los Angeles, against the opening of a marijuana dispensary (the city council ultimately approved the opening). "Our communities will pay for gringos to get high!" one protester's sign read.

"When you look at Latinos, we already have enough challenges facing us in our community: poverty, role models, gangs and violence; this seems like another one of these things you add on top of it," said Barajas.

Another issue of concern is public health. Colorado hospitalizations involving marijuana rose from 803 per 100,000 between 2001 and 2009 to 2,413 per 100,000 after legalization, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health. In Washington, fatal crashes involving drivers who recently used marijuana more than doubled from 2013 to 2014, after legalization.

Who will benefit?

After legalization in several states, it's still unclear how much minorities have benefitted, especially entrepreneurs.

“White people are getting ready to make this happen,” said Felicia Carbajal, a cannabis educator and activist, at an August town hall in Gardena, California. “If we don’t participate with them, we are not going to reap the benefits, and we are the people most affected by the war on drugs.”

Legalization opponents also say they fear a "big marijuana," akin to cigarette companies and that small growers could be at a disadvantage.

"You have an industry that's already behaving like tobacco industry," said Zinsmeister. "It's building a very powerful lobby in states where it's been legalized."

In Nevada, where medical marijuana is legal, it costs tens of thousands of dollars to get a dispensary license.

"When you look at the ballot initiative, it gives people who would come into the market carte blanche here in Nevada in unprecedented ways to do what they want and limit competition from small growers," said Rene Cantu, a SAM spokesman for the No campaign in Nevada. “It's prohibitive for anyone who's a small investor or entrepreneur.”

But in California, where the market is already large and growing, legalization could provide new opportunities, like the state’s famous wine industry.

Although Latinos are disproportionately affected by access to resources, loans and capital, more Latinos are likely to enter the industry, says Gudiño, pointing to a rising number of Hispanics in the wine industry. "The days of excluding communities of color are being challenged," he said.

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