Black lawmakers threaten to block legislation legalizing recreational marijuana if Black communities won’t benefit
Carol Ozemhoya | OW Contributor | 3/12/2019, 11:35 a.m.
Black lawmakers are blocking a push to legalize recreational marijuana in New York, warning that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposal could perpetuate the racial inequality fostered under current drug laws, reports the New York Times.
The lawmakers say that unless people of color are guaranteed a share of the potential $3 billion industry, there may not be legalization this year. They want to be assured that some of that money will go toward job training programs, and that minority entrepreneurs will receive licenses to cultivate or sell the marijuana.
Ten states and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana, and as lawmakers elsewhere consider their own laws, they seem intent on not repeating what they see as other states’ mistakes. They say one misstep, in particular, stands out: None of the 10 states or Washington ensured that minority communities would share in any economic windfall of legalization — missing out on an opportunity to redress years of having a disproportionate number of African-Americans arrested on marijuana charges.
In New York, the question of economic return for those communities has emerged as a defining issue. “I haven’t seen anyone do it correctly,” Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the first Black woman to serve as Assembly majority leader, said of legalization. “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,” she continued. “If it’s not required in the statute, then it won’t happen.”
Critics say marijuana legalization has fostered an inequitable system in which wealthy, White investors often reap the profits of the fledgling industry. In Colorado, Black entrepreneurs said they were banned from winning licenses because of marijuana-related convictions. Black people make up just a handful of the thousands of cultivation or dispensary license holders there, and continue to be arrested on marijuana-related charges at almost three times the rate of White people.
In California, several cities introduced equity programs retroactively. Oakland now requires at least half of licenses to go to people with a cannabis-related conviction and who fell below an income threshold. The Black New York lawmakers include some of marijuana legalization’s most vocal supporters, but they want to make their state is the first to tie legalization directly to an economic equity program. And that has meant seeking changes to Gov. Cuomo’s proposal, which though it provides for a “social and economic equity plan,” does not specify how much weight would be given to minority license applicants, or how much money would be invested in communities ravaged by the war on drugs.
Alphonso David, the governor’s counsel, said that those provisions would be written in regulation after legalization was passed. “Some people are looking for a level of detail that may not be appropriate for legislation, and we have to be careful how we implement the legislation so we don’t have to change it every few years,” he said.
But opponents say those omissions undercut Cuomo’s efforts to frame legalization as a way to right the wrongs that decades of criminalization had wrought on communities. He called for sealing some drug-related records and funding substance abuse treatment. Even as Cuomo has pressed for speed, urging the Legislature to include legalization in the state budget in April, crucial lawmakers have shown little interest in rushing his proposal through.