Black Lawmakers Threaten to Oppose Recreational Marijuana in New York

There might not be legal cannabis in New York anytime soon if laws don't ensure that people of color will own their fair share of the new industry.

A group of Black lawmakers in New York are committed to blocking recreational cannabis legalization in the Empire State unless a fully realized economic equity program is included in the legislation backed by Governor Andrew Cuomo (D).

Most states that have legalized recreational marijuana in recent years have tried to address social justice in their initiatives, usually in the form of expunging cannabis-related convictions from criminal records and doling out tickets instead of prison sentences for many nonviolent cannabis offenses. But critics say those measures aren't enough. If Cuomo wants to bring legal weed to NY, he'll have to ensure that economic opportunities are available for communities that have been impacted the most by the War on Drugs, says New York City Counselor Donovan Richards (D).

"Not arresting people is not good enough," he said. "Economic justice must be served."

Counselor Richards has good reason to be concerned about economic inequality. In states with legal cannabis markets the industry continues to favor wealthy white men, leaving the people most affected by past drug policing policies out of the fledgling business. Without a plan in place to guarantee that communities of color will benefit economically from cannabis legalization in New York, Cuomo's legislation can't possibly hope to fulfill its claims of righting the wrongs of the racist War on Drugs.

And some lawmakers would rather have no legalization at all than a system that perpetuates racial disparities.

"If [economic equality's] not required in the statute, then [legalization] won't happen," Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D) told The New York Times. She added that legalization hasn't benefited people of color in other jurisdictions, so she's not going to hold out hope that it will somehow work out better in New York. 

"I haven't seen anyone do it correctly," added Peoples-Stokes (D), who is the first Black woman to serve as Assembly Majority Leader. "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."

For his part, Cuomo seems to have acknowledged that legalizing cannabis will take a bit longer than he had initially hoped. He told reporters on Monday that he was "no longer confident" that marijuana revenues would be included on the state's 2020 budget. Revisions to his initial legalization plan seem unavoidable at this point if he wants to get it passed, but whether he'll address the concerns of the state's Black lawmakers is anyone's guess at this point.

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