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 voices of hundreds of activists boomed through the State Capitol on Tuesday as they urged their elected officials to legalize recreational marijuana this year. And the biggest point they advocated for was to use revenue from legalization to invest into communities of color.

“Any legislation that we pass to legalize marijuana in New York state must understand the nuances of over 40 years of prohibition, must understand the collateral consequences of the criminalization of marijuana use,” said Jawanza James, a member of Start Smart NY, a pro-legalization advocacy group. “We want to make sure that racial justice, equity and an understanding of the ramifications are considered.”

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

All the legislators who spoke at Tuesday’s rally emphasized this discrimination and the disparate impacts it has had on communities of color for generations, and urged to rectify those injustices by reinvesting in the harmed communities. But just as last year, legislators are coming to a head with Gov. Andrew Cuomo over exactly how much revenue should go back into communities of color.

State Sen. Liz Kruger, D-28, and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-141, have a bill that would specifically allocate 50 percent of the revenue to a community grants reinvestment fund.

But the governor’s office is hesitant to put a specific percentage in statute.

“We look forward to discussing with the legislature revenue allocation and making sure that everyone understands the need for flexibility in order to be able to address the appropriate needs as they’re diagnosed,” Norman Birenbaum, director of Cannabis Programs for the state, told Johnson News last week.

Instead, Cuomo’s bill focuses on establishing “tools and mechanisms” to correct the harms caused by disproportionate enforcement of marijuana criminalization in communities of color. These 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 creating a board that would identify where to direct funding within communities of color.

For legislators, though, that isn’t enough. Peoples-Stokes and Krueger both have said they would not sign onto the budget — Cuomo’s preferred manner of passing legalization legislation — without seeing a specific allocation.

“Here’s why I think most executives have a problem — when the revenues come into the general fund, they want to be the only one that controls it,” Peoples-Stokes told reporters Tuesday. “I know the governor has a good heart and I know that he probably will try to make sure there are resources invested into communities of color that have been most impacted.”

“But quite honestly he’s not the governor for life,” she continued. “There could be another governor in five years. It took decades to destroy these communities, it’s not going to take two years to fix them.”

Peoples-Stokes and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-35, both told reporters Tuesday a big chunk of the conversations with the governor’s office have been over revenue allocation.

“This is as good a prospect as last year,” Stewart-Cousins said.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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