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Black Lawmakers Threaten Block of New York Legalization Sans Racial Justice Measures

Without correction to prohibition’s racial disparities, prominent advocates will withdraw support.

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Black Lawmakers Threaten Block of New York Legalization Sans Racial Justice Measures
Darrin Harris Frisby/Drug Policy Alliance

In New York, the process of getting marijuana legalized has uncovered some deep divides in the cannabis movement. Some of the state’s Black lawmakers say that unless racial justice is prioritized, they will withdraw their support of Governor Mario Cuomo’s legalization bill, which has also raised alarm over what some see as its over-reaching influence of medicinal marijuana conglomerates.

An article published by the New York Times on March 11 outlined the concerns of Black elected officials. “They thought we were going to trust that at the end of the day, these communities would be invested in,” commented Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the state’s first Black female Assembly majority leader. “But that’s not something I want to trust. If it’s not required in the statute, then it won’t happen.”

The Governor’s office holds that adding the allowances for correcting the racial disparities of the War on Drugs would be best added in after the passage of the bill. “We have to be careful about how we implement the legislation so we don’t have to change it every few years,” said Cuomo’s counsel Alphonso David to the Times.

That reasoning may not be good enough if the Governor plans on retaining the support of the state’s lawmakers of color for his bill, which he originally pledged to pass within the first 100 days of his current term and encouraged by included in April’s state budget. Some of the politicians involved in the criticism of the bill have been some of legalization’s most passionate activists.

Various proposals have been raised to make sure that the legalization of marijuana and any windfall it brings to the state will include measures to correct the racially biased negative effects of the drug’s prohibition. Many hold that the legislation must explicitly set up an economic equity program that would designate a certain number of cannabis business licenses be given to entrepreneurs of color. Others have called for investments in communities adversely affected by the War on Drugs. People-Stokes has introduced a separate legalization bill that would earmark half of the state’s cannabis tax revenue for job training programs.

Lack of racial justice measures is not the only criticism the mayor’s bill has faced. Its requirement that licensees start the process with the requisite property and equipment already in place presents a serious boundary to lower income entrepreneurs.

Others have raised concern over the influence on the bill held by already-established cannabis business interests. In January, the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association sent a memo to the Governor calling for a ban on home grow operations. That communique stated that allowing individuals to grow their own cannabis would “make it impossible for the state to eliminate the black market.”

In February, that same group found it necessary to kick out one of its members, the nationwide dispensary chain MedMen, over charges of racist and sexist remarks uttered by its executives.

In New York city, efforts are being made by the City Council’s Progressive Caucus and the Black Latino and Asian Caucus to save space in the cannabis industry to come for smaller business. They’ve proposed that the city retain control over delivery and cultivation of weed.

“Not arresting people is not good enough,” said Donovan Richards, a Queens councilperson. “Economic justice must be served.”

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