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Welcoming Marijuana While Understanding Social Equity By Yasmin Hurston Cornelius

Many states are legalizing adult use of marijuana, but the use and possession of marijuana still violates federal law. In August 2017 Senator Cory Booker introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, later co-sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, to help combat the adverse impact of marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 drug on economically challenged and minority communities across the United States. Senator Booker is not the first to introduce a bill to legalize marijuana or to develop protections to portions of the marijuana industry. The March 2018 omnibus funding legislation passed by both the House and Senate included the Rohrbacher-Blumenauer amendment, extending protections that have existed since 2014 prohibiting the Justice Department from using federal funds. The goal is to prevent certain states” from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana.” Senator Booker’s bill is different. 

In addition to eliminating the status of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act, it proposes that federal courts expunge the records of Americans with prior convictions related to use or possession. It gives states incentive to do the same and permits any minority or economically challenged person arrested for possession to sue for bias. States refusing to cooperate would be penalized. They would lose federal criminal justice funding, particularly if is has been proven that existing laws have had a larger impact on its minority populations than on others. Senator Booker, in promoting the bill, stated that the states that have legalized marijuana are experiencing less crime, reaping more revenue, and freeing up the resources of local law enforcement to focus on more serious crime. 

It is widely acknowledged that marijuana-related arrests and the direct and collateral consequences of a conviction have damaged the lives and careers of otherwise decent, law-abiding citizens, their families, and their communities. These individuals may face imprisonment, the loss of voting rights, the inability to hold certain licenses or jobs, loss of eligibility for public housing or student financial aid. The negative impact of these consequences has been disproportionately felt by minority and economically challenged communities.

Law enforcement bias and misguided policies of the “War on Drugs” are most often cited as the causes of inequity of this impact. According to a Quinnipiac University National Poll 60 percent or American voters agree that the use of marijuana should be made legal in the U.S. Despite this fact, in 2015, over 570,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession, which is about 70,000 arrests more than all combined violent crimes including murder, rape, and aggravated assault. According to a 2016 report by the Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, Black Americans made up 14 percent of all drug users in the country, but based on police data from 39 states, the probability of a Black adult being arrested for marijuana possession was more than four times higher than that of a white adult. 

In January 2018 Governor Cuomo proposed to fund a study of the possible impact of legalizing recreational marijuana in New York State and the consequences of legalization in neighboring states. New York State presently has “Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act,” NYS legislation sponsored by Buffalo Assembly Member Crystal Peoples-Stokes (A 3506 – B ‐ 2018) and Senator Elizabeth Kruger (S 3040-B ‐2018) sitting in committee which addresses the decriminalization, taxation, and regulation of marijuana. There is no mention, however, of how the communities and individuals disproportionately affected by the criminalization of marijuana will be included in the burgeoning marijuana industry.

The legalization of marijuana in New York State is a necessary and important first step which would lower the future rate of incarceration of the communities and individuals most harshly affected by marijuana criminalization. However, this is not enough to undo the years of harm and ongoing effects of their arrests. Based upon my recent visits to Denver, CO and Los Angeles, CA, I believe that to remedy this injustice, New York State should adopt this four-pillar approach, focusing on (1) entrepreneurship/ employment opportunities, (2) community reinvestment, (3) criminal justice reform, and (4) health equity.

The awarding of adult use marijuana licenses in New York State should include a social equity component, requiring the involvement of a person directly affected by the criminalization of marijuana. There should be incentives and training to encourage the employment of such individuals in legal marijuana businesses within the state. Massachusetts is in the process of utilizing this state-wide social equity program. In addition, to reinvest in the negatively impacted communities, a specified percentage of the tax revenue gained from marijuana businesses within the state should be directed back to these communities.

A process for the expungement of marijuana convictions under certain conditions, as exists in New Jersey, is fair, and upon the legalization of marijuana, those currently serving sentences should be able to appeal their convictions. Black Americans have been unreasonably harmed as a consequence of marijuana criminalization both nationwide and in New York State. At the end of 2015, 50 percent of individuals imprisoned for drug possession were Black. A 2016 Marijuana.com report, based on data obtained from 25 states by filing a Freedom of Information Act request, showed that New York State had both the second highest rate of arrests for possession in the country, and the largest racial disparity among those arrested. Statewide, in 2013, Black Americans were thirteen times more likely than white Americans to be arrested on this charge. 

To ensure health equity, the education and engagement of New York residents on the benefits of medical marijuana, and the lobbying of declassifying marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance should be undertaken. Despite public support, and as comprehensive as Senator Booker’s bill is, it is unlikely to gain much traction in Congress without public education and engagement. 

In this there is an opportunity and a need to create the New York Minority Alliance, an affiliate chapter of the California Minority Alliance, which has been a strong voice for communities excessively affected by marijuana criminalization. The New York Minority Alliance’s board comprises of former elected officials, business developers, policy makers, union affiliates and former law enforcement executives. This organization will provide education, economic opportunities and awareness to support inclusive participation in the medical and adult use marijuana industries. The late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan said, “Education remains the key to both economic and political empowerment.” This four-pillar approach to the legalization of marijuana in the State of New York demonstrates how inclusive legislation can empower economically challenged communities through appropriate training, tools, resources, and guidance. 

YASMIN HURSTON CORNELIUS is currently an elected New York State Committee Member representing Central Harlem and the President of the newly formed New York Minority Alliance.

[Editor’s Note] Editorial originally ran three years ago in the June 2018 edition of Black Westchester Newspaper when it wasn’t a popular stance but today there will be a vote that will include social equity!!!

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Black Westchester - News With The Black Point Of View is an online news magazine for people of color for Westchester and the Tri- State area of New York at every economic level. Our mission is to promote the concept of “community” through media.
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