Legalize It, But Make It Equitable: Black Lawmakers in New York Fight for Economic Parity in Cannabis Bill

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A push to legalize marijuana in New York may stall out this year, as black lawmakers demand the state do right by African American communities, who have been disproportionately impacted by draconian drug laws.

While legalization could ensure black and Latinx people are no longer targeted for marijuana offenses, legalization should also provide a pathway to economic equity, lawmakers argue.

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Specifically, they want any bill legalizing cannabis to help ensure community reinvestment and minority participation in the potentially lucrative industry. As the New York Times reports, this would include job training programs and prioritizing licenses to the people and communities hit hardest by the criminalization of marijuana.

Without such provisions, black lawmakers fear they’ll follow in the footsteps of other jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana, where the massive financial windfall of the cannabis industry has evaded black communities.

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Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes told the Times she hasn’t seen any place that has legalized marijuana (ten states so far, plus Washington D.C.) “do it correctly.”

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“They thought we were going to trust that at the end of the day, these communities would be invested in. But that’s not something I want to trust,” Peoples-Stokes said of the current proposed legislation. “If it’s not required in the statute, then it won’t happen.”

According to an analysis last year from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, the market for medical marijuana is roughly $3.1 billion—with about a third of that coming from New York City alone.

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In a statement announcing the findings, Stringer emphasized, “this is not just about dollars–it’s about justice.”

“Not only is marijuana an untapped revenue source for the City and the State, but the prosecution of marijuana-related crimes has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic communities for far too long,” he said, adding that the new analysis “shows just how much New York City and State stand to benefit by moving toward legalization.”

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“This is an opportunity to do what’s right and build up the very communities that criminalization tore down,” Stringer added.

But while decriminalizing marijuana and reclassifying past offenses helps redress a systemic wrong, communities can’t be rebuilt off those steps alone, lawmakers and policy experts argue.

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“Of particular concern in New York has been the influence of wealthy medical marijuana corporations, which are overwhelmingly led by white people and may be well positioned to capitalize on the recreational industry,” the Times writes.

According to the paper, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s current marijuana bill requires applicants for licenses to “already have the land, buildings and equipment needed for their businesses,” shutting out people of color who are less likely to have the capital necessary to meet those requirements.

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“You can’t talk to me about justice and not talk to me about economics,” Bertha Lewis, president of the Black Institute and a chief strategist for We Rise to Legalize told the Times. “They are inextricably joined.”

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About the author

Anne Branigin

Staff writer, The Root. Sometimes I blog slow, sometimes I blog quick. Do you have this in coconut?