Cannabis Questions for Candidate Hakeem Brown,
the City of Vallejo, and the State of California
Observers of the collapse of Hakeem Brown’s campaign for the mayor’s office in Vallejo ask how an individual with his criminal record received a state license and local approval to own a cannabis dispensary. There appears to be considerable confusion surrounding the question of what would disqualify an applicant, as well as the motivation for asking the questions. We will attempt to shed some light on both issues, if not all the answers.
This is not about persecuting an individual by destroying his livelihood. It’s about fair treatment under the law and whether the Vallejo police department and City employees gave Mr. Brown’s application preferential treatment - and if so why. These are perfectly legitimate questions to ask. The actions of our local government officials regarding this nascent industry over the past decade have done nothing to inspire confidence in the fairness of the process.
Briefly, the Council put Measure C on the 2011 ballot asking voters if the City should tax the medical marijuana dispensaries that were then proliferating in Vallejo with no local ordinance to regulate the industry. Voters approved the measure with a margin more than three to one - a show of industry support repeated with every subsequent vote on cannabis ballot measures.
Instead of the City moving to promulgate a set of common sense rules for developing the local industry, the Vallejo police department raided some of the businesses and confiscated products and property. Mr. Brown’s medical marijuana dispensary was among those targeted. The prosecutions were eventually thrown out of court a year later.
During the 2013 campaign for seats on the city council, the JumpStart slate of candidates pledged to respect the wishes of voters and collect taxes from the dispensaries - like ‘collecting water bills,’ according to current Councilmember and incumbent candidate Verder-Aliga.
Following the election in which three of the JumpStart candidates won seats, Mayor Davis announced that he now had the votes on the council to ban the cannabis industry from Vallejo entirely. Newly elected councilmember Pippin Dew opined from the dais that people voted for Measure C for the wrong reasons.
The decision to defy the expressed will of voters to collect taxes for a cash-strapped city did not sit well with the public, and a firestorm of protest erupted. The council majority was forced to retreat on an outright ban while still trying to limit the number of retail businesses to two, and finally four. A veto referendum petition challenging the city's new ordinance qualified for the next ballot, and recall efforts were launched against the Mayor and the three JumpStart councilmembers.
Ultimately the Council decided to allow eleven of the existing dispensaries to remain in operation who had met standards for early beginning operation dates and an unbroken record of tax payments to the City. Owners and supporters of dispensaries that were not allowed to operate by the final ordinance launched another referendum petition against it. Petitioners for that effort turned in 8,700 signatures to the city clerk.
Unequal treatment marked the regulatory effort from the beginning. Exceptions to the rules for an early opening date and an unbroken record of tax payments were made for some applicants, while others encountered a series of roadblocks and expensive mandates. The lack of transparency surrounding the regulation of what were largely cash businesses inevitably raised suspicions.
Mr. Brown and half of the dispensary owners formed an association that lobbied for a regulatory framework that would allow them to monopolize the local cannabis industry - not just retail, but any related activity in production, manufacturing, or distribution. That dovetailed nicely with the aims of City officials to limit the local industry to the greatest extent possible and deal with only a few familiar faces. The resulting ordinance continues to restrict the issuance of any type of cannabis business license today to just the few individuals that already hold a local retail license.
That self-serving maneuvering helped the City shut out would-be entrepreneurs and squandered a significant economic development opportunity for the City. None of the existing holders of Vallejo retail licenses have made use of any of the other State-issued license types. The opportunity to create jobs and generate tax revenue afforded by the foresight of local voters has been wasted so that a handful of people could control the local industry. Mr. Brown and his cronies were apparently too shortsighted to appreciate the potential synergies and mutual benefit offered by an integrated and thriving local cannabis industry serving a statewide market.
Community members have been raising the question of how Mr. Brown was able to pass the required background check and receive a cannabis license from the City in light of the recent revelations about his criminal history. How did he go from public enemy to the public safety union’s choice for a council seat in 2018? How much did the police know about his record, and how much political leverage might that knowledge provide over a sitting councilmember who is trying to hide his past? How much did City officials know, given their shared interest in stifling the local industry? All legitimate questions in light of recent history.
Here’s what we know about the background check process required statewide in order to own a cannabis business. The application process involves two layers of criminal record examination - a self-reported criminal history and a Live Scan records check by the California Department of Justice and the FBI.
Applicants must file a detailed description of the owner’s convictions. The instructions stipulate: “A conviction means a plea or verdict of guilty or a conviction following a plea of nolo contendere. Owners should include convictions dismissed under Penal Code section 1203.4 or equivalent non-California law in their disclosures.” (That section refers to convictions that can be expunged following completion of probation.) “Convictions dismissed under Health and Safety Code section 11361.8 or equivalent non-California law must also be disclosed. Juvenile adjudications and traffic infractions that did not involve alcohol, dangerous drugs, or controlled substances do not need to be included.”
Applicants for any type of cannabis business in California must also submit to a Live Scan, a type of background check commonly required by state and federal governments; typically for state-issued licenses, employment, or volunteer work. A Live Scan operator verifies the applicant's identification, inputs the applicant's personal descriptor information, captures the applicant's fingerprints electronically, and transmits the data to the California Department of Justice. The DOJ maintains the statewide criminal record repository for the State of California.
The Live Scan system places strict limitations on what information is available and how that information is distributed. The resulting criminal history report is sent to the organization’s Records Custodian, which may or may not be the person making the hiring decision. In larger organizations it’s usually not the same person. The custodian is only allowed to tell the person making the hiring decision that the person has passed or failed the LiveScan. They don’t even get to know why that person has failed the background check. Mr. Brown filed his application for a Live Scan with the Vallejo police department on 9/17/2015 as a required part of his license application, and the results came back to the City for review.
The mandatory self-reported history is the more comprehensive of the two layers. It’s not clear what part of Mr. Brown’s record would have been included in the Live Scan results or who made the call that Mr. Brown qualifies as a cannabis business owner based on those results. Live Scan generally only reports criminal convictions going back seven years, although some employers (i.e. law enforcement in particular) may be required by law to look deeper. The State has mandated that only records related to the following categories are revealed by Live Scan:
Crimes relating to child abuse or elder abuse
Convictions or incarcerations in the last 10 years as a result of committing: theft, robbery, burglary or any felony.
Many crimes that don’t fall into those categories or rise to felony level likely may not be revealed, including crimes like assault and domestic violence.
The lack of transparency surrounding this process leaves many questions unanswered. Did Mr. Brown report his entire criminal history to the Bureau of Cannabis Control as required? Who made the decision at the State and local level to approve the application in spite of the extensive criminal record now revealed? How much of that record did members of the Vallejo police department know and when did they know it? Who in Vallejo city government knew, how much did they know, and what standards were used in determining that Mr. Brown qualified for a local license?
This is about good government, transparency, and fair and equal treatment in administering City policy. We fully support the development of a robust and vertically integrated local cannabis industry to replace the black market, create jobs, and generate tax revenue. The current ordinance shuts out local entrepreneurs by severely restricting licensing opportunities while over-regulating and over-taxing our handful of existing businesses. Cannabis businesses pose no threat to public health or safety, and should be licensed and regulated like any other business.
In 2016 when Mr. Brown faced prosecution for a 2013 raid on a Napa cultivation site, Voices of Vallejo was among the many who came to his defense, communicating directly with the DA's office and publishing opinion pieces. An article posted on Voices web site titled Cease Fire ended with the following paragraph giving the defendant our full-throated support:
“As taxpayers the cost of this frivolous prosecution is bad enough, but on a personal level we also become complicit in an injustice done in our name. Not only is Mr. Brown the head of a large and long established patient organization, he is the single father of a thirteen year old boy. We don’t need any more casualties from this failed public policy, and incarcerating him or depriving him of his livelihood would do nothing to serve the public interest. Mr. Lieberstein’s office should drop all charges against Mr. Brown immediately in the interest of decency and fairness. This war is over.”
Notice that he was already presenting himself as a family man, although apparently with a different child, while the newly released records show him to be a deadbeat dad failing to pay child support. He single-handedly blew up the long established patient's coalition that rose to defend him when he was in trouble, with fits of rage and invective when its members began to question the push to monopolize local licensing.
While we continue to strongly back efforts to undo the damage from the failed drug war prohibition policies, that is not an issue here. This is about the character and integrity of our elected and appointed officials and transparency in the operation of our city government. The City and the candidate still have a lot of questions outstanding in need of some answers.