Black lawmakers are blocking a push to legalize recreational marijuana in New York, warning that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal could perpetuate the racial inequality fostered under current drug laws.
The lawmakers say that unless people of color are guaranteed a share of the potentially $3 billion industry, there may be no legalization this year. They want to be assured that some of that money will go toward job training programs, and that minority entrepreneurs will receive licenses to cultivate or sell the marijuana.
Ten states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana, and as lawmakers elsewhere consider their own laws, they seem intent on not repeating what they see as other states’ mistakes.
They say one misstep, in particular, stands out: None of the 10 states or Washington ensured that minority communities would share in any economic windfall of legalization — missing out on an opportunity to redress years of having a disproportionate number of African-Americans arrested on marijuana charges.
In New York, the question of economic return for those communities has emerged as a defining issue.
“I haven’t seen anyone do it correctly,” Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the first black woman to serve as Assembly majority leader, said of legalization.
“They thought we were going to trust that at the end of the day, these communities would be invested in. But that’s not something I want to trust,” she continued. “If it’s not required in the statute, then it won’t happen.”
Critics say marijuana legalization has fostered an inequitable system in which wealthy, white investors often reap the profits of the fledgling industry.
In Colorado, black entrepreneurs said they were banned from winning licenses because of marijuana-related convictions. Black people make up just a handful of the thousands of cultivation or dispensary license holders there, and continue to be arrested on marijuana-related charges at almost three times the rate of white people.
In California, several cities introduced equity programs retroactively. Oakland now requires at least half of licenses to go to people with a cannabis-related conviction and who fell below an income threshold.
The black New York lawmakers include some of marijuana legalization’s most vocal supporters, but they want to make their state the first to tie legalization directly to an economic equity program. And that has meant seeking changes to Cuomo’s proposal, which though it provides for a “social and economic equity plan,” does not specify how much weight would be given to minority license applicants, or how much money would be invested in communities ravaged by the war on drugs.
Alphonso David, the governor’s counsel, said that those provisions would be written in regulation after legalization was passed. “Some people are looking for a level of detail that may not be appropriate for legislation, and we have to be careful how we implement the legislation so we don’t have to change it every few years,” he said.
But opponents say those omissions undercut Cuomo’s efforts to frame legalization as a way to right the wrongs that decades of criminalization had wrought on communities. He called for sealing some drug-related records and funding substance abuse treatment.
Even as Cuomo has pressed for speed, urging the Legislature to include legalization in the state budget in April, crucial lawmakers have shown little interest in rushing his proposal through.
“It’s not going to go the way it looks now,” said Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat who represents a district that includes Buffalo. She has introduced her own bill, which directs half of all marijuana revenue to a community fund supporting job training, and prioritizes licenses for people from communities most affected by criminalization.
Cuomo seemed to acknowledge as much Monday, telling reporters that he was “no longer confident” that marijuana would be in the budget.
The debate in New York is unfurling as at least three Democratic presidential candidates — Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Julian Castro — have said they support reparations for African-Americans. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently called for “affirmative action” licensing for entrepreneurs of color in the marijuana industry.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, another presidential candidate, has introduced a bill to legalize marijuana nationwide. Co-sponsored by four other Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, it includes provisions for job investment in minority communities.
In New Jersey, where the Legislature is also weighing legalization, a coalition of black pastors, the NAACP and advocates is also pushing for legalization only if tied to community reinvestment. After lawmakers in November moved the bill through a committee, the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union called adding language about education and job training a top priority.
Of particular concern in New York has been the influence of wealthy medical marijuana corporations, which are overwhelmingly led by white people and may be well positioned to capitalize on the recreational industry.
That concern has made itself so clear that the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association, worried that legislators might seek to shut them out of the new industry, sent a letter to Cuomo and legislative leaders Monday promising to set up a $25 million “Cannabis Economic Opportunity Fund” to provide zero-interest loans to companies led by women and people of color. (The association recently asked the company MedMen to resign from the group amid allegations of racism among top executives.)
The medical companies have sought to shape the bill in other ways, too: Their executives and people tied to them have donated more than $600,000 to Cuomo’s campaign account.
The governor’s bill also would require applicants to already have the land, buildings and equipment needed for their businesses, which would effectively exclude many black people because of historical disparities in capital, said Kassandra Frederique, New York state director at the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit group. Frederique’s group is pushing for the bill to include zero-interest loans and provisional licenses.
David said the state’s regulations after legalization could include zero-interest loans for minority entrepreneurs, funded by payments from companies seeking licenses.
Other interests are already clamoring for a share of the hypothetical tax revenue as well, which has been projected to reach as much as $677 million a year. Last month, Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to divert at least some of the money to New York City’s subway system.
But legislative leaders suggested that revenue might not materialize without a robust economic equity plan.
“I was very clear with the governor and the mayor that the marijuana revenue, if we get there,” should go first to “community investment,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said.
A bill that includes only criminal justice changes, at the expense of economic ones, would not meet that standard, advocates said.
“Some people exploit the social justice piece of legalization,” said Bertha Lewis, president of the Black Institute and a chief strategist for We Rise to Legalize, a coalition of advocacy groups.
“You can’t talk to me about justice and not talk to me about economics. They are inextricably joined.”
Throughout New York City, communities are trying to ensure that they see some benefit from legalization, regardless of what happens in Albany.
The City Council’s Progressive Caucus and the Black Latino and Asian Caucus recently introduced laws and resolutions calling for the city to have local control over home delivery and cultivation of marijuana, potentially allowing smaller businesses to share in the sales.
“Not arresting people is not good enough,” Donovan Richards, a city councilman from Queens, said. “Economic justice must be served.”
For some marijuana skeptics, “economic justice” has become the selling point, and also the sticking point. The Rev. Anthony Trufant, pastor of the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Brooklyn, held a conference with the group Women Grow at his church last month that was aimed at improving diversity in the cannabis industry.
Among its speakers was Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who said that a “growing emphasis on the economic aspect of marijuana legalization” had replaced an “overemphasis on social justice.”
Trufant said the economic argument had helped ease his initial hesitation about legalization.
“There are opportunities for investment,” he said. “There are opportunities for employment.”
If reinvestment initiatives are not put in place alongside legalization, the underground market is likely to remain, said Dasheeda Dawson, chief executive of MJM Strategy, a cannabis consulting and marketing firm.
“The industry right now reads as very white,” Dawson said. “If I’m in the hood and I’m hooking up my man with revenue by purchasing from him, I’m going to continue to buy black.”
Still, the economic argument has not won over all the skeptics.
The Rev. Johnnie Green Jr. of Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem said black politicians and activists were “fooling themselves” if they thought licenses to sell marijuana would go to the black community.
“The licenses will go disproportionately to Caucasians. It’s already been proven in every city where there’s legalization of pot,” he said. “I just wish they would stop acting like this is a win-win for the black community.”
The Rev. Reginald Lee Bachus of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem said he would push to ensure that legalization, if successful, would create funding for black communities, but would not push for legalization itself because the issue had divided his congregation.
“I lose a segment of my support if I come down on one side or the other,” Bachus said, “but I have 100 percent support if I talk about the tax revenue.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.