Marijuana and Money: Could New York achieve social equity from weed?

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(NEWS10) — Surrounding states Vermont, New Jersey, and Massachusetts have all done it: legalize adult-use recreational marijuana and reap the tax rewards. On Wednesday, sources at the State Capitol have said a tentative deal has been reached on legal marijuana.

However, since 2013, one New York lawmaker has fought tirelessly to utilize the promised tax revenue from recreational marijuana for the purpose of social equity instead.

The aftershock of mass incarceration from marijuana is still being felt all across New York State, affecting impacted communities and families both financially and emotionally.

According to the ACLU, 8.2 million people were arrested for marijuana from 2001 to 2010. And of those millions of arrests? 88% were for possession of the substance and not for selling or trafficking marijuana.

“It started from smoking at 16 years old, and I got a DWI. I was like the poster child of don’t smoke weed and drive, and I didn’t even know it was a charge,” Ashley Radliff, Vocal NY advocates for low-income people affected by the war on drugs.

Although pot is used at about the same rate as white people in the United States, Black people are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

“I grew up in the same stuff, but because of the color of my skin, I’m out today,” Radliff said.

In 2019, New York acknowledged the disproportionate arrests of people of color by decriminalizing marijuana within certain boundaries and making convictions for less than 25 grams eligible for expungement.

Currently, if someone is in possession of 2 ounces of weed or less, it’s a violation, not a crime.

Radliff said she hopes for further decriminalization in addition to recreational legalization but questions the motive behind the state’s acceptance of marijuana for tax revenue.

“Why is it okay? Because people are going to get money from it? Because people are greedy, and that’s the only way you get your attention,” Radliff said. “But now the problem is, they don’t even want to share a piece of that.”

With upwards of $700 million projected in taxes, some state lawmakers believe the government has an obligation to use that money to right their wrongs.

“America is essentially a capitalistic country; I don’t have an issue with that,” Assembly Member Crystal Peoples-Stokes said. “But I also know that many of us don’t have access to the same level of capital because of the negative impacts that have been put on our lives because of the mass incarceration on drugs.”

Stokes has spent the past eight years spearheading legislation that would legalize marijuana while utilizing tax dollars to assist those most affected by mass incarceration and give them job opportunities in the legalized marijuana industry.

“Well, it’s hard for you to take care of yourself when your son is in jail, and you’re raising your kids; now he’s out of jail, and he can’t get a job because he’s a felon,” Peoples-Stokes said. “Their whole lives are out of order. The government created that, and it’s our responsibility to fix it.”

However, some believe legalization will do more harm to communities of color than good.

“Most people don’t want people going to jail or getting an arrest record for simply smoking a joint,” said Will Jones, a Communications Associate for Smart Approaches to Marijuana—an organization that opposes legalization. “It does not mean that people want a pot shop on every corner.”

Although Jones said he agrees with decriminalization, he believes legalization will only further inflame racial injustice, and marijuana will be another “addiction for-profit industry” like alcohol or tobacco.

“Which is what you have in Colorado, where there are more pot shops than Mcdonald’s and Starbucks combined,” Jones said. “We also see that those stores are disproportionately located in communities of color.”

Additionally, Jones questioned if this social justice aspect of the marijuana legislation in New York will come to fruition and help those the law promised.

“What’s happened in some states is that afterward, they just pass other legislation that relocates it to something else,” Jones said.

Legalization advocates agree on some level; New York’s projected level of social equity through marijuana law hasn’t been done before.

However, Kaelan Castetter, owner of Empire Standard and a cannabis industry advocate, said New York is the state to do it.

“So, listen, it’s not gonna be perfect, right,” Castetter said. “But as we develop the program, it will be incumbent on the regulators to ensure inclusivity and a level playing field.”

Castetter drove home that the legislation has to do more than just tax revenue; it must also drive business to communities of color by removing the red tape.

“So, what we’re looking to do is to take something that’s inherently a negative thing, such a black eye in the community’s eyes,” Damien Cornwell, a cannabis grower in Upstate New York, said. “This business is not a new business. It’s just newly legal, right?”

Cornwell believes licensing must be given to social equity candidates in order for communities of color to benefit. and the only thing stopping this social equity aspect of marijuana would be the rules and regulations.

“It can’t all just be about money, right? That’s the problem,” Cornwell said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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