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Health Equity Versus Social Equity
in the Age of (Recreational) Cannabis

The Los Angeles County Office of Cannabis Management holds a Community Listening Session in West Athens/Vermont — Chester Washington Golf Course on July 20, 2017


By Mark Ridley-Thomas

As California prepares to kick off the nation’s largest legal commerce in marijuana, it’s easy to salivate over the multibillion-dollar bonanza this could bring to the state and local economy, and to believe the hype that this wealth can reverse some of the damage wrought over decades by the war on drugs.

But when Los Angeles County’s Office of Cannabis Management held a series of “listening sessions” to seek public input on potential regulations, the question that cropped up again and again was how this might affect various communities, especially the youth.

It was particularly poignant when asked by parents in neighborhoods already contending with a glut of marijuana dispensaries and stores selling alcohol and tobacco – all dependency-inducing products.

They worried that marijuana, while intended for adult use, could still affect the health of their children. This was not only because youth are particularly vulnerable to recreational marijuana’s psychoactive substances but because their neighborhoods – typically low-income communities of color – tend to be medically underserved and already beset with higher than average rates of substance abuse disorders and other maladies.

In large swaths of South and Southeast LA, for example, the life expectancy rates ranged from 75.8 years to 80.6 years, or as many as 14 years shorter than those in Malibu and Beverly Hills, based on a recent study that starkly illustrates the health inequity among different communities in the county.

The same study added that health disparities are caused by a host of factors, including limited access to affordable and quality medical care, healthy food, clean air, good schools, jobs that reduce the stress of economic uncertainty, and safe neighborhoods where families and communities can thrive.

Health equity is an essential characteristic of a society that values the wellbeing of every one of its members. In creating the first-ever regulations for marijuana commerce within the county’s unincorporated areas, the Board of Supervisors has an obligation to avoid exacerbating health disparities, and an opportunity to reverse them.

It is imperative that we emphasize health equity in marijuana commerce, and wield regulations in business licensing, monitoring and enforcement so that health disparities can be eliminated or minimized. It would be similar to requiring that real estate developers mitigate their project’s impact on traffic in surrounding neighborhoods as a condition of getting the green light to get their shovels ready.

A lot of attention has been paid to so-called social equity programs that would, in a sense, indemnify people who had suffered disproportionately from the war on drugs by giving them a better chance than others to profit from retail sales of marijuana.

But how can social equity be attained when the focus is narrowly on leveling the playing field of economic opportunity, and no attempt is made to address any other social ills facilitated by manifold addictions and exacerbated by the war on drugs? This crude attempt at social engineering can only be expected to fall short.

When evaluating a prospective retailer of marijuana, it makes sense to check whether factors that lead to health disparities are already particularly pronounced in the community where this business wants to operate, and then to assess whether marijuana commerce in that community would lead to unintended consequences. It is critical that regulations lead to responsible and conscientious businesses that will make a positive contribution to the health and wellbeing of their neighbors.

Creating programs that nurture our youth is always a good idea, but even more so now, amid widespread concerns about pot shops becoming more prevalent. We should also look into bolstering programs to prevent drug use and treat substance abuse disorders.

The newly created Center for Health Equity at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is on a mission to ensure that all communities have equitable access to services and programs so that everyone can achieve their highest levels of wellbeing. It can be a powerful ally in helping to close or narrow health disparities created by marijuana commerce.

The historic shift from prohibition to licensing has tossed Los Angeles County – and indeed the rest the state and the nation – into uncharted waters. Still, it’s obvious that crafting responsible and reasonable regulations is not merely a matter of economics. We must ensure that our most vulnerable communities, many of which have already endured a legacy of neglect and exploitation, are not further harmed by the legalization of recreational marijuana or even the commercialization of cannabis.

The Los Angeles County Office of Cannabis Management holds a Community Listening Session at the Lennox Library on July 22, 2017.


Avis & Mark Ridley-Thomas Life Learning Center Breaks Ground

Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas led the groundbreaking ceremony for the Avis & Mark Ridley-Thomas Life Learning Center with nearly 200 in attendance.

The Avis & Mark Ridley-Thomas Life Learning Center will be located at 5054 South Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles. The Life Learning Center was named in honor of two prominent leaders who proactively support coalition building, social justice, empowerment, and non-violent solutions. The newly reimagined and renovated building will be a dedicated youth center to encourage participants and their peers to “drop in” and use it as a safe zone and resource. This warm, welcoming stand-alone drop-in center will provide access to holistic arts education, permanent housing, comprehensive resources, school assistance, career training, and a positive support system.

“One of the most challenging periods in a young person’s life is the transition from adolescence to adulthood,” said Avis Ridley-Thomas.

There is a significant overlap between homelessness and commercial exploitation: a 2017 study found that 91% of homeless youth reported being offered work opportunities that turned out to be fraudulent work situations, scams, pandering, or sex trafficking. More than half of homeless youth report mental health challenges, including depression, anxiety, psychosis, and post-traumatic stress. Half of chronically homeless adults in the U.S. experienced homelessness between the ages of 18 and 24. And youth homelessness increased 61% from 2016 to 2017 in the County of Los Angeles.

“This transition from adolescence to adulthood also provides a window of opportunity to intervene and guide young people toward self-sufficiency,” the Chairman said.

The Avis & Mark Ridley-Thomas Life Learning Center will serve as a drop-in center for any young person seeking a sense of safety and belonging.

The Los Angeles Child Guidance Clinic (LACGC), a nationally acclaimed mental health service provider for children and youth in South Los Angeles, purchased the building that will house the Center which will occupy 10,000 square feet of space. The center will provide trauma‐informed mental health services and support resources to at‐risk transition‐age youth, ages 16‐25. LACGC’s Life Learning Program was founded in 1992. In 2014, the program was renamed the Avis & Mark‐Ridley Thomas Life Learning Program in honor of their joint achievements in community empowerment and social justice.

“We fully expect that this Center will avert many a young person from the criminal justice system, the mental health system, and a lifetime on the streets,” the Chairman said.

The center is expected to open in mid-2018.

National Honor for LA County
Plan to Fight Homelessness

L-R: LA County Homeless Initiative Director Phil Ansell, CEO Sachi Hamai and Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, joined by National Alliance to End Homelessness President and CEO Nan Roman and the event emcee, PBS News Hour anchor Judy Woodruff. All photos by Larry Levin.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness honored Los Angeles County at its 2017 Innovation and Excellence Awards in Washington D.C.

The Alliance praised the County’s Homeless Initiative and Measure H, which over the next five years is expected to end homelessness for about 45,000 individuals and families, and prevent homelessness for 30,000 more.

“Ending homelessness in any community demands a relentless focus on innovation and pursuit of excellence,” Alliance President and CEO Nan Roman said. “This year’s awardees demonstrate the power and potential to create lasting change and put us on the road to ending homelessness.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas accepted the award on behalf of the County, accompanied by County Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai, and Homeless Initiative Director Phil Ansell.

“The County is honored to be recognized nationally for developing the Homeless Initiative and providing an ongoing source of revenue through Measure H that will put us on a path to prevent and end homelessness,” Chairman Ridley-Thomas said. “We have much to do, but thanks to the voters and support from a broad-based coalition of community partners, we’re confident we can finally address this humanitarian crisis head on with the resources needed to effect real change.”

The Alliance said the Homeless Initiative collected broad-based community input on how to focus the County’s efforts to end homelessness. The Board, acting on motions principally authored by Chairman Ridley-Thomas, then declared a state of emergency on homelessness and adopted an ordinance to authorize a quarter-cent countywide special sales tax. The ballot measure, known as Measure H, passed with support from almost 70 percent of voters and is expected to raise $355 million in annual revenue over the next decade to combat homelessness.

During the ceremony, awards were also handed out to the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland, Maine, and to the Central City Concern in Portland, Oregon.

The Alliance is nonprofit and nonpartisan organization committed to preventing and ending homelessness in the U.S. It analyzes policy and develops pragmatic, cost-effective policy solutions; works collaboratively with the public, private and nonprofit sectors to build state and local capacity; and provides data and research to policymakers and elected officials to inform policy debates and educate the public and opinion leaders nationwide.

Crisis and Bridge Housing in Compton

Dozens of homeless families will soon be able to move into an apartment complex in Compton, the latest example of Measure H @work.

Acting on a motion by its Chairman, Mark Ridley-Thomas, the Board of Supervisors approved using Measure H funds to convert an apartment complex into 52 units of crisis and bridge housing, which are short-term accommodations for people transitioning into permanent housing. They provide a more stable, home-like environment, in part because they have kitchens so families can prepare their own meals.

The nonprofit Special Service for Groups Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System (SSG HOPICS) will operate the site. It already operates 89 crisis and bridge housing units at various sites, while also providing emergency housing for 223 families at hotels and motels throughout the region.

Each crisis and bridge housing unit typically costs the County $60 and $80 a night, respectively, while hotels and motels cost approximately $95 per night. Transforming an apartment complex into additional crisis and bridge housing units will reduce the County’s reliance on hotels and motels, saving an estimated $474,500 a year, which can be used for further help the homeless population.

SSG HOPICS Division Director Veronica Lewis said, “The investment in developing additional family crisis housing capacity in this region is both timely and necessary to meet the growing demand for homeless families, and to ensure safety and security for children in our community.”

Measure H is a 1/4-cent County sales tax approved by nearly 70 percent of voters on March 7. Projected to raise about $355 million annually for 10 years, it is expected to help 45,000 families and individuals escape homelessness within the next five years, and to prevent homelessness for 30,000 others.

Probation Reform: Oversight and Accountability

Determined to transform the deeply troubled Probation Department, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to consider an independent entity that would consolidate the various reforms recommended over the years and propose a roadmap for finally implementing those changes, with oversight and accountability.

“The reform efforts already underway are promising but fragmented,” said Board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, principal author of the motion. “We need a singular vision and a comprehensive approach that will leave no stone unturned in addressing, once and for all, the deeply entrenched and systemic problems plaguing the nation’s largest Probation Department.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas. All photos by Diandra Jay / Board of Supervisors

“The need for reform and accountability is underscored by troubling events over the past several weeks, including the sentencing of a Probation officer who sexually assaulted girls as young as 15 at Camp Scudder, and the discovery that youth are still subjected to solitary confinement at Central Juvenile Hall more than a year after the Board banned that practice,” he added.

The motion called for analyzing whether the existing Probation Commission can be strengthened and repurposed to serve as that independent entity. If not, the Board would consider creating one.

The Office of Inspector General, which already provides oversight of the Sheriff’s Department, may see its scope expanded to include the Probation Department. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl had sought that amendment to the motion.

The motion’s coauthor, Supervisor Janice Hahn, said, “This is the time to move forward and bring together everybody’s past, present and future wishes and dreams and visions for the kind of Probation Department that LA County warrants, one that will have real accountability and reform as we move forward.”

“There have been numerous and sometimes duplicative efforts to examine the Department over the past couple of years, and I think the time has come for us to stop doing that,” Supervisor Kathryn Barger said. “There’s a lot of data, research, interviews, analysis, legal opinion and more that is ready at our fingertips. Having transparency is key, as is having a roadmap moving forward.”

A diverse group of stakeholders provided testimony in support of the motion, including representatives of State Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra and LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, as well as a range of criminal justice reform advocates.

Cyn Yamashiro, Probation Commissioner & Directing Attorney for LACBA, testifies before the board.

LA County Bar Association Independent Juvenile Defender Office director Cyn Yamashiro was one of four Probation Commissioners who spoke in favor of the motion. He noted that after decades of efforts to reform Probation, “we are still in what I would almost describe as a crisis.” He likened Probation to a ship with competent captains hoisting its sails but hampered by a number of problematic crewmembers below deck, adding, “I think oversight will be akin to a tugboat to get the ship going where it needs to be going.”

Jose Osuna testified that he is a former probationer who works with current probationers as external affairs director of Homeboy Industries. “I come to you with 30 years of frustration (with the department) but I do favor this motion because I think any step in the right direction is a good thing, and I think this is a strong step. I think we need to find a way to tie all these (reform) efforts that we’ve undertaken and spent so much taxpayer money on, so that these efforts don’t go to waste.”

Urban Peace Institute criminal justice program manager Josh Green said the motion “represents an opportunity to create the lasting vision and oversight that are essential to transforming Probation.”