Now the neighborhood is looking to an element of that war for its revival. The community wants one of its own to receive permission to sell marijuana, a drug the young foot soldiers from the Fresno Hoover gang such as Aaron Foster fought to sell along its streets.
The competition for lucrative retail licenses has been fierce since California voters decided in 2016 to make marijuana legal for recreational use. But Fresno is behind the curve when it comes to cannabis, making it a contested front in the push to ensure the benefits of legal marijuana accrue to those who suffered most in the war on drugs.
“We’re the ones who get sent to prison, and the most unfair thing would be if now the corporations are allowed to come in and make millions selling what sent us to prison,” said Aaron Foster II, Kayla and Aaron’s father and a West Side elder who has been shot multiple times himself. “We don’t want outsiders coming in.”
Driven by a state government dominated by Democrats, California is undertaking a broad revisionist appraisal of its criminal justice system, particularly its effects on millions of people of color. The debate about marijuana retail licenses here in the state’s fifth-largest city reflects the principles of social reparations that have underpinned the public policy discussion in some larger cities for months.
Marijuana legalization was always supposed to mean more than a new stream of tax revenue and a less-stressful way for adults to get high. But using the emerging industry to correct past wrongs — a policy prescription known as social equity — has proven difficult even in left-leaning cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland.
The idea is to give preferential treatment within the cannabis industry to those disproportionately affected by the drug war. Cities developing social-equity policies are measuring that damage street by street and person by person.
Oakland, for example, requires that at least half of its cannabis retail licenses go to social-equity candidates, which can include people with previous convictions for marijuana-related crimes. Sacramento, which adopted a social-equity policy last fall, has identified specific neighborhoods for preferential licensing.
“There was certainly a group of individuals harmed by government policy,” said Sacramento City Council member Jay Schenirer, who helped develop the city’s social-equity criteria. “If we can look to those same people to generate economic activity, then we must do that.”
The main problem facing social-equity applicants is simple: Money.
The cost of opening a bricks-and-mortar cannabis shop can run as high as $1.5 million, a daunting sum in an industry that cannot draw on traditional lines of credit or bank loans. That has opened the industry up to “cannabusinessmen,” as some activists derisively call outside investors with the capital to start up retail operations instantly.
Several cities have sought ways to limit the influence of these investors, who often pair with social-equity applicants for their preferential status but do not reinvest in the community. In Los Angeles, for example, a cannabis retail licensee must own at least 51 percent of the operation.
Social-equity advocates are urging the state and local governments to allocate more money for start-up cannabis funding at a time when the industry, more broadly, is struggling to come into the light. High taxes and regulatory fees, a still-thriving black market and massive overproduction among licensed growers are stunting the development of what is estimated conservatively to be a $7 billion annual legal cannabis market.
“The wealthy investors have come out of the gates in Ferraris while people of color are on foot or riding bicycles,” said Malaki Seku-Amen, who is chief executive of the nonprofit California Urban Partnership and helped develop Sacramento’s social-equity policies. “The playing field is not even close to being level.”
Sacramento has granted 30 cannabis retail licenses, all of which had been awarded by the time the council adopted its social-equity policy. That cap could be raised, city officials say, and licenses for delivery services could be the first to go to social-equity candidates.
“We have opted into the cannabis industry and now we have to make sure it works for all of our people,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg (D), who was a longtime state legislator before winning his current office in 2016. “I’d only say that the process for government is moving at light speed — and it’s also taking too long.”
'This is reparation'
This city in the San Joaquin Valley, where the wealth gap is yawning even by California standards, has long been a destination for immigrants and refugees, many with agricultural expertise or a willingness to work in the almond and citrus orchards that made many here rich.
It is a working-class town and a flat pass-through place for tourists heading to Yosemite and the Sierras, which rise in the middle distance to the east, capped with snow now after a stormy winter. The West Side is the historical home to the city’s African American community.
The city’s mixed character is reflected in its landmarks. There is a Rosa Parks Interchange and a Dwight D. Eisenhower Highway, a Buddhist temple next to a Pentecostal church that celebrates Mass in Spanish, vast orange groves stretching out between strip malls.
“Fresno is still a very conservative city where even its Democrats are blue-dog, traditional family-values Democrats,” said Clint Olivier, a registered Republican and former city councilman who pushed through the city’s cannabis policy. “The city has been progressive in its thinking about cannabis policy, but now we need the right regulations to make it work.”
The city also has been late. California voters endorsed medical marijuana more than two decades ago. But only after voters approved recreational use in 2016 did the city begin licensing medical dispensaries.
The seven cannabis retail outlets the city plans to license this year would still operate under medical marijuana rules. Those stores generate far less revenue than ones open to recreational users, and there will be a push to make sure that transition from medical to recreational eventually happens.
In November, city voters easily passed a measure to collect taxes on cannabis. Ten percent of the projected $10 million annual revenue — about $1 million a year — will go into a “community benefit fund,” money that could be used to build up neighborhoods run down by drugs.
“This is the social justice for us,” said Gidai Maaza, a mental-health therapist who is seeking a cannabis license as part of the People’s Dispensary, a national for-profit organization with retail dispensaries licensed through local residents. “This is reparation.”
The city expects about 10 applicants for each of its initial seven licenses.
Who gets them — and how that should be decided — is a process under development. The line is already forming.
Wesley Flowers grew up in his grandmother’s West Side home at South Ivy and East Lorena avenues, bullet holes marking its stucco walls. He brushed up frequently against the law. But he has no criminal record and, now 27 and unemployed, Flowers is a future social-equity applicant.
On a recent morning, Flowers, a joint in his hand, looked across the street from the patchy front yard of his grandmother’s house and nodded.
“See that new GMC Sierra? The guy who owns it has never had a job,” he said. “And we used to idolize guys like that.”
Flowers secured a scholarship to play football at UCLA. But he left early to care for his ailing grandmother, eventually finishing his degree in African American studies at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.
Maaza said he plans to hire Flowers if the People’s Dispensary secures a license. He will train Flowers and then help him apply for his own. But Flowers is not optimistic.
“It feels like a monopoly right now,” he said. “You have people who have never been involved in this industry now making the laws about this industry and people here have always been locked out of opportunities like this.”
New council, new priorities
The Fresno City Council adopted rules last year that would favor retail applicants with the best plan to reinvest cannabis revenue back into city neighborhoods, whether by sponsoring youth sports teams, paying for gang graffiti cleanup programs or pledging to hire people convicted of marijuana crimes.
But a new council has since taken office. Councilman Miguel Arias, a former field worker who represents the West Side, wants the licensing process to focus on the individual licensee and the neighborhoods that would benefit. He called the previous regulations “just conservative enough to get through” the council.
“That policy allowed the market to define what social equity means,” said Arias, who wants his regulations adopted by June. “And in the past, that has meant the ‘good ol’ boy network’ got to define it. We have to be more thoughtful and intentional.”
Wayne McCoy, better known here as G Wayne, grew up a West Side gangster, sporting telltale blue colors and a gun in his hand. But on a warm recent afternoon, he wore his new colors — the fluorescent yellow of a safety vest — as he rounded up materials for a street-corner barbecue along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
“I changed because I lost my son,” McCoy said, choking up at a memory now a dozen years old.
In 2007, McCoy was doing time on gun charges in Ironwood State Prison when he was told that his 17-year-old son, Andre Jones, was killed in a gang shooting.
“I taught him the wrong stuff,” said McCoy, 44, whose eye-to-chin scar on the right side of his face points back to his own gang days. “But I gave him what I knew.”
He’s trying now to give neighborhood kids something else through his nonprofit, Tuff Kidz Outreach. His program would be in line for help — a steady revenue stream — from the community development fund that would grow from the cannabis tax.
For money to pay for homework tutoring, sports programs and the annual summer “Ghetto Olympics,” McCoy organizes carwashes, secures small charitable grants and pleads his case where he can.
The hustle has paid off in a clean, safe place where children gather after school — Granny’s Park — where even the basketball nets remain intact in a sign of neighborhood respect for McCoy, who preaches that “in this town, only we can take care of ourselves.”
“People here believe guys like me can only destroy this city,” said Juan Bautista, 23, a former gang member who has been in and out of jail since he was 15 years old, including as recently as February for missing a court appearance.
Bautista has started a program to train young former convicts in carpentry, welding and mechanics, working out of donated warehouse space along Divisadero Street. He, too, would be a candidate for the community benefit fund.
“I want to show that we can also fix this city,” said Bautista, who has sold drugs illegally in the past. “I got started in this life with marijuana money. Now I want to use marijuana money to start a new one.”