Gotham Gazette

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For Racial Justice, Cuomo and Legislative Leaders Must Pass Marijuana Legalization

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(photo: Governor's Office)

We are days away from the end of the legislative session and among the many important issues Governor Cuomo and New York legislators have left to accomplish is addressing the racially-biased and unjust enforcement of marijuana prohibition in our state.

The Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA), currently being considered by New York lawmakers, is one of the clearest pathways toward reducing racism in New York. In the last 20 years our beloved state has earned the dubious distinction of becoming the marijuana arrest capital of the country, with more than 800,000 arrests made just for possession of small amounts.

Nearly 80% of those arrested have been people of color, even though drug use occurs at similar rates across racial and ethnic groups.

These arrests are not a trivial matter. They involve being handcuffed, placed in a police car, taken to a police station, fingerprinted, photographed, possibly being held in jail for up to 24 hours while awaiting arraignment before a judge, appearing in court several times over the course of months, and potentially concluding with the imposition of a permanent criminal record that can easily be found online by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies, and banks.

New Yorkers who are arrested often face consequences that can make it difficult to get and keep a job, maintain a professional license, obtain educational loans, secure housing, or even keep custody of a child. This is all for something that is now legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia, and that white people do for the most part without consequences nationwide.

If you are among the many who believe legalization isn’t necessary, believing New York’s decriminalization law protects people of color from law enforcement harassment, let me share the reality of what happens in our communities.

While it is currently illegal to sell marijuana, you are not technically supposed to get arrested for possession of small amounts. But New York’s decriminalization law, which we’ve had for 40 years, is failing. More than 60 people on average are still arrested every day for marijuana possession in the state. These arrests have been largely justified by a loophole allowing police officers to distinguish between public and private personal possession. Because possession in “public view” remains a crime—and the fact that there is pervasive and racially-biased over-policing of communities of color—mass arrests continue.

The MRTA will not only put an end to these racist police practices, but will create a responsible and well-regulated industry that will better restrict minors’ access to marijuana. It will also generate millions in tax revenue to bolster the state economy and support the communities that have been most harmed by marijuana prohibition.

The bill additionally works to address some of the unjust consequences of marijuana prohibition by creating a process for both the reclassification of past convictions related to marijuana and for the resentencing of currently incarcerated individuals who are serving time due to a marijuana-related offense. This provision of the legislation will remove significant barriers that New Yorkers face in the wake of a marijuana conviction and allow them to fully participate in society without the devastating toll of collateral consequences.

New Yorkers can feel assured knowing that the sky did not fall in states like Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Alaska that have legalized the adult use of marijuana. Use by minors has not gone up, and there has been no increase in driving under the influence. We have the major benefit of learning from hurdles these pioneering states had to overcome, and incorporating lessons learned.

The drug war has left a lasting impact on generations of New Yorkers, particularly harmful for people of color. State resources that could benefit our communities are instead being used to perpetuate wasteful and damaging prohibitionist policies that have not been successful in curbing use, increasing public health, or benefitting communities.

The MRTA will not only earn the state billions in revenue, but will reinvest some of this money back into the communities that have been most harmed with adult education services, job training, the expansion of afterschool programs, re-entry services, and other community-centered projects. Money will also be directed toward public schools as well as drug treatment programs and public education campaigns geared toward reducing opioid overdoses and saving lives. It is a win all around.

It is time to stop the ineffective, racially-biased, and unjust enforcement of marijuana prohibition and to create a new, well-regulated, and inclusive marijuana industry that is rooted in racial and economic justice. If Governor Cuomo and New York legislators are really interested in curbing racism in our state, they will pass the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act this legislative session.

L. Joy Williams is the President of the Brooklyn NAACP. On Twitter @LJoyWilliams.

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