This piece was written with New York State Assembly Member Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes (District 141). She is the primary sponsor of legislation to legalize marijuana in New York.
New York is on the cusp of legalizing marijuana. This moment comes after years of work by activists, civil rights organizations, and advocacy groups, and committed members of the State Legislature. For civil rights organizations like the National Action Network, the legalization of marijuana is a racial justice issue. In New York City, Black and Hispanic people made up 86 percent of the marijuana arrests from 2014–2016. Black people have borne the greatest burden during this era of marijuana prohibition in New York: they are 3.5 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
People understand that marijuana prohibition must end because it has been enforced in a racially biased manner. Still, legalization is more than just a racial justice issue. Marijuana legalization is an economic justice issue. Our task now is to create a marijuana industry which does not exclude Black people. Several states have experimented with legalization. Many of these efforts have not centered on communities of color. Less than five percent of founders and business owners in the marijuana industry are African-American.
In January 2017, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) was introduced for the second time into the New York State Legislature (Bill numbers. A.3506C/S.3040C). It is carried in the NYS Assembly by Assembly Member Crystal Peoples-Stokes and in the NYS Senate by Senator Liz Kreuger. This legislation recognizes that marijuana legalization is an economic justice issue as well as a racial and social justice issue. The bill has gained the support of activists because of provisions which would (1) allow past marijuana convictions to be sealed, (2) create a diverse industry and (3) reinvestment in communities that have been disproportionally impacted by marijuana criminalization.
That same year, Rev Al Sharpton spoke at the Cannabis World Expo and discussed his support of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. Rev. Sharpton stressed the fact that Black people must be included in the marijuana industry because Black communities have been disproportionately harmed by enforcement. One of the provisions of the MRTA which would help to ensure diversity in the marijuana industry is keeping licensing and application fees reasonable. Black people cannot be owners in the marijuana industry if they cannot afford the licenses to start a business.
In autumn of 2018, the New York State Assembly held public hearings on the legalization of marijuana. At this series of four hearings, advocates presented testimony about the MRTA and their varied views on the best ways to create a marijuana industry in New York. The Drug Policy Alliance, Latino Justice, VOCAL-NY and the National Action Network presented testimony which stressed the need to repair the harms which have been done to communities of color. One of the ways to help atone for New York’s racially disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws is to give racial minorities a real opportunity to become owners in the regulated industry.
In the spring and summer of 2018, New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, moved the state closer to marijuana legalization. Governor Cuomo commissioned a study by the NYS Dept. of Health on the impact of legalization. Their favorable report led to the creation of the Governor’s working group to draft legislation which would legalize the adult use of marijuana. This is the boldest move that any governor in New York has made towards legalizing marijuana. The work that Governor Cuomo has done to move the state towards marijuana legalization has been lauded by policy makers and advocates.
In 2019, marijuana legalization is likely to become a reality in New York. Black and Hispanic communities must continue to take centerstage in the conversations around legalization. It is not enough to simply seal past marijuana convictions. Black people and other communities of color must be real participants in this new industry. The MRTA has provisions which provide ways for these communities’ continued entrepreneurship in an industry which, once regulated, structurally thwarts diversity. New York citizens, activists and many legislators — including the bill’s sponsors — are adamant that steps must be taken to avoid creating a marijuana industry which inadvertently excludes communities of color from business ownership.