Marijuana debate centers on communities of color

About $200,000 worth of marijuana was recovered in a bust in Hillsdale in Columbia County in May. Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed Thursday that he will push for legalization of adult recreational use of marijuana in his 2020-21 state budget proposal. Photo courtesy of New York State Police

ALBANY — The state Legislature has returned to the State Capitol after a historically productive session last year with a slew of new goals to build on and accomplish.

One — legalizing adult use of marijuana — was fumbled by lawmakers last year.

In his State of the State and budget addresses, Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed that this would be the year the state would pass the legislation.

“For decades, communities of color were disproportionately affected by the unequal enforcement of marijuana laws,” Cuomo said in the State of the State. “Last year, we righted that injustice when we decriminalized possession. This year ... let’s legalize adult use of marijuana.”

Cuomo’s vow comes after legislators last year couldn’t agree on how to regulate licenses and where the revenue from the new industry should go, which many advocates argued should be reinvested into communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of marijuana.

According to a 2018 study, African-Americans were eight times more likely than whites to be arrested on low-level marijuana charges over the previous three years in New York City, despite multiple studies finding that different races use the drug at the same rate.

This year, though, is different, elected officials said.

Cuomo included a 200-page bill in his $178.6 billion 2020-21 budget proposal to legalize the use of marijuana for adults 21 and older, which includes initiatives to direct funds to invest in communities of color and provide them with steady footing to enter the new industry as entrepreneurs — specifics that were excluded from last year’s iteration. Cuomo’s office estimates that marijuana legalization will bring in $300 million by 2025, with revenue starting to come in within 18 months.

“We’re clearly identifying some of the tools and mechanisms to make sure we are fulfilling this obligation to correct the past harms that have been caused by prohibition on communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs,” said Norman Birenbaum, director of Cannabis Programs for the state.

The tools and mechanisms for new business owners include access to zero or low-interest loans, establishing programs that would pair new entrepreneurs with veteran business people for guidance and counsel on business plans and crafting workforce development courses.

But the proposed legislation would also cater to communities of color at large, whether or not they get involved in the industry as entrepreneurs. Cuomo’s proposal would create a five-member control board to create a social equity plan that would identify areas within communities of color to direct funding, such as education, health equity and child care.

“You’re talking about all these different things which are staples of uplifting communities,” Birenbaum said.

Advocates for marijuana legalization, however, aren’t as pleased with Cuomo’s bill. The Drug Policy Alliance issued a statement Wednesday expressing disappointment that the governor’s bill did not apportion funds to be reinvested in communities of color clearly enough.

“Legislation must include specific language to resolve the devastating collateral consequences of marijuana prohibition in the fields of housing, employment, child welfare, and immigration,” said executive director Kassandra Frederique. “Without this necessary component, the Governor’s proposal will not truly right the wrongs done to communities of color by disproportionate enforcement of marijuana.”

At a news conference at the state Capitol on Thursday, state Sen. Liz Krueger, D-28, presented an updated version of her original legislation to legalize marijuana, which does clearly outline the use of revenues to establish funds for drug treatment public education campaigns and community grants.

Krueger was joined by Sen. Pete Harckham, D-40, who announced his new support for legalization after vocally opposing it last year.

“As somebody in recovery my job in life is not to outlaw every mood-altering chemical on the planet, my job in life is to learn how to navigate that environment in a sober manner and help others to do the same,” Harckham said. “The thing about trying to continue to outlaw marijuana is that — let’s be frank — we can buy this in any high school in New York. It’s time that we tax this and put the money to a social good.”

Harckham said he is specifically backing Krueger’s bill because of the details that would allocate additional money for local police departments and schools to deal with regulation and enforcement, and social media campaign to spread more education and awareness about marijuana use. But most significant to Harckham is using the revenues from marijuana legalization to invest in substance abuse disorder treatment.

Krueger said her bill stipulates 25 percent of the revenue to go toward substance abuse prevention and treatment. Additional funds, she said, would go toward social justice reentry programs for communities of color disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.

“We have thought through our bill very carefully,” Krueger said. “I’m optimistic we could get it negotiated in the budget if the governor is willing to make the commitments of how the revenue is to be spent.”

If she can’t get the commitment of how the revenue would be spent, Krueger said she would not move forward with negotiating the bill in the budget.

But in his budget address, Cuomo said marijuana legalization is best done through the budget because it’s an “opportunity to make some tough decisions and work through tough issues.”

Birenbaum said he’s optimistic about the collaboration between the Legislature and governor after seeing Krueger’s bill.

“I think it’s really encouraging to see how similar these bills are,” Birenbaum said. “Every time there’s been a new version coming from the governor or Legislature, these versions are becoming more and more aligned and we’ve been able to close the gap.”

Massarah Mikati covers the New York State Legislature and immigration for Johnson Newspaper Corp. Email her at, or find her on Twitter @massarahmikati.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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