Story at a glance

  • Recreational marijuana use was legalized in New York on March 31.
  • Unlike the legalization of the substance in other states, New York’s legislation is directly tied to efforts to revitalize areas disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.
  • Forty percent of tax revenue from cannabis sales will now be reinvested into those communities.

This week, New York became the 16th state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, finally overcoming years of stalled attempts. 

The cannabis legislation was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) on Wednesday, following a day of intense debate among lawmakers in Albany. Through the new program, millions of dollars of tax revenue from cannabis will be reinvested into minority communities that have continued to be ravaged by the decadeslong war on drugs.

The robust program legalizes cannabis for adults 21 and older, a move that officials are hoping will help put a stopper on years of racially disproportionate policing that saw Black and Hispanic Americans arrested on low-level marijuana charges. 

A study of marijuana busts made last year by the New York City Police Department found that a staggering 94 percent of those arrested were Black or Hispanic.

“Unlike any other state in America, this legislation is intentional about equity,” Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, the Democratic majority leader in the Assembly who sponsored the bill, said on the floor of the lower chamber. “Equity is not a second thought, it’s the first one, and it needs to be, because the people who paid the price for this war on drugs have lost so much.”

Programmed for equity

While New York has lagged behind other states in legalizing the recreational use of cannabis (even neighboring New Jersey made the move to legalize the substance last year), it is positioned to quickly become one of the largest markets of legal cannabis in the nation — and one whose legalization is tied directly towards the fight for racial and economic equity.

Through the program, 40 percent of the tax revenue from cannabis sales will be designated to the communities mentioned above, and people once convicted of marijuana-related offenses that are no longer criminalized will see their records automatically expunged.

As for the rest of the tax revenue, another 40 percent will be steered toward public education, and the remaining 20 percent is earmarked for drug treatment, prevention and education. 


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Another progressive aspect of the deal includes the introduction of “equity programs,” which will provide loans, grants and incubator programs for small farmers as well as those from areas disproportionately affected by drugs. A goal of the legislation is to see half of the program’s business licenses go to equity applicants, who, for example, might be disabled veterans, women, or those who have relatives with a marijuana conviction.

Crossing the finish line

Former efforts to pass recreational cannabis legislation have fallen apart for years, often because of objections by Gov. Cuomo. This year has presented itself as perhaps the most challenging in Cuomo’s career, though, as sexual harassment allegations have rocked his once-steady public image, especially following the praise he received for his initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers and lobbyists have remarked on the surprising amount of concessions made by Cuomo on this particular bill — a politician not typically known for compromise. 

“This is a historic day in New York, one that rights the wrongs of the past by putting an end to harsh prison sentences, embraces an industry that will grow the Empire State’s economy, and prioritizes marginalized communities so those that have suffered the most will be the first to reap the benefits,” Cuomo said.

Critics of the new legalization have said that the new taxes on marijuana sales as well as reduced penalties on illegal sales will backfire, while supporters are particularly hopeful about the unique guardrails put into place that are meant to insure against a monopoly of the market by certain investors. 

“I cannot be more proud to cast my vote to end the failed policies of marijuana prohibition in our state and begin the process of building a fair and inclusive legal market for adult use of cannabis,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan who sponsored the bill in the upper chamber. “It has been a long road to get here, but it will be worth the wait.”


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Published on Apr 02, 2021