This Aug. 22, 2019 photo shows medical marijuana plants being grown before flowering during a media tour of the Curaleaf medical cannabis cultivation and processing facility in Ravena, N.Y.
( AP Photo/Hans Pennink
Rebeca: This is The Takeaway. I'm Rebeca Ibarra in for Tanzina today. The push to decriminalize, and now legalize marijuana in New York has been a long journey, and one that advocates are hopeful will begin to reverse decades of racial inequity. Marijuana arrests have had a disproportionate impact on communities of color in New York and across the country. According to the Drug Policy Alliance in New York State in the first half of 2019, Black and Latinx people accounted for 75% of people arrested for low-level marijuana possession. That's despite being only 33% of the state's population.
For more on New York's approach to legalization, we're joined by Melissa Moore, New York State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. Melissa, thanks so much for being here.
Melissa: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
Rebeca: The bill to legalize marijuana in New York State has been a long time in the making. Can you tell us how the state evolved in its stance on drugs, drug laws, and sentencing since the 1970s?
Melissa: This has been a long journey. In the 1970s, in New York, we see the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which were some of the most draconian approaches to policymaking around drugs that had existed anywhere in the country. The toll was immediate and devastating in communities of color and low-income communities, but really all pockets of New York State. Pretty swiftly, we see this effort around, especially decriminalization of low-level marijuana possession, because so much of the enforcement was targeting young people.
We see this effort to decriminalize low-level possession. Unfortunately, there was a loophole within that that allowed for ongoing misdemeanor arrest, if somebody's possession was considered to be in public view. Initially, that didn't have a huge impact, but then we get into the era of stop-and-frisk policing, broken-windows policing and those arrests skyrocket because, suddenly, officers are telling people to empty their pockets, and are getting marijuana in public view and making an arrest from that unconstitutional stop.
At that point, we see arrests go above 50,000 a year just in New York City alone. There was a further effort around decriminalization that began in early 2010s, built further and further to 2019, when, unfortunately, the state didn't pass full adult-use for marijuana, but did pass a further effort around decriminalization, and also established expungement for the first time, which was really important because, up to that point, we had seen 800,000 arrests for low-level marijuana possession just in a 25-year period.
As we're moving forward to this moment, it's really a reckoning of so many policies from the 1970s and even prior to that, that were really just rooted in stigma, and had nothing to do with the plant itself and yet had devastating impacts across our state.
Rebeca: What does the rollout of this plan look like?
Melissa: The bill will cover all aspects of the cannabis plant in New York. It will have a supervisory structure for adult-use cannabis, as well as bringing the medical marijuana program and the hemp CBD farming program, all under the umbrella of the same organization. It'll establish the Office of Cannabis Management, as well as the Cannabis Control Board in New York State, but I think the key details around this bill are really how it's framed in terms of social equity and community reinvestment and restitution, really acknowledging the harms that have been done under prohibition and criminalization, and saying, "We're not just going to turn the page and say, "Oh, sorry" and act as if the entire history of harm in communities that was so targeted, didn't happen."
We have to actually acknowledge that, atone for that, and then provide restitution. This bill will devote a significant portion of the tax revenue to reinvestment in communities that were directly harmed by the marijuana arrest crusade and the war on drugs in New York, for things that are responsive to the types of damage that has been done in communities.
Rebeca: Melissa, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Public Science Project at the Graduate Center, CUNY released a report two weeks ago titled, Inequitable Marijuana Criminalization, COVID-19, and Socioeconomic Disparities. Walk us through some of the key findings in that report.
Melissa: For quite a while now, since the beginning of the pandemic, we've been looking at the disparities and how COVID was impacting different communities and there's been a lot of really important reporting around that. We looked at it and realize there were so many overlaps between what we had seen for decades in terms of the racial disparities and biased enforcement around marijuana prohibition.
We actually crunched the numbers along with Public Science Project and found that what we thought to be true anecdotally is actually the case when we have the hard data in front of us, that there are extreme racial disparities in marijuana enforcement. We know that and it's still the case in 2020 even during the pandemic. Even after decriminalization in New York City, we still have an instance where 94% of the arrests for low-level cannabis were Black and Latinx New Yorkers.
This is despite the fact that people use at similar rates. It's simply a matter of targeted enforcement. Then we looked at the economic vulnerability indicators, the proportion of people within a community, we actually analyzed by zip code, who are experiencing food insecurity and accessing SNAP benefits, for example, or other indicators of poverty, and found that again, there's a correlation where the communities that are the most impacted by marijuana arrests, also have some of the most economic vulnerability.
Then we layered the COVID data on top of that and found that the same communities also have higher COVID positivity rates, so it's a matter of looking at how these are structural factors that are completely intertwined. It's the same dynamics at play, over and over again, that are just hitting communities with wave after wave of devastation. As we're talking about rebuilding from the COVID crisis, as well as looking at what it is to provide restitution to the communities that were the most harmed by the marijuana arrest crusade, that's really where the conversation around how do we direct the tax revenue from cannabis legalization in New York back into these communities and make sure that there are resources that are going to provide for addressing the incredible harms that were done.
Rebeca: In terms of addressing that racial inequity, how does what New York is doing or trying to do differ from what other states have already done?
Melissa: I think this bill is the most ambitious in the country in terms of social equity. It also has distinct streams in terms of social equity, which is really pertaining to the industry and the business portion of cannabis legalization and adult-use and then there's the community reinvestment part, which we've talked about. That will create a community grants reinvestment fund, that will have revenue available for entities that are working in communities that have been directly harmed with people who have been directly impacted, to be able to access those funds.
On the social equity side, this bill is really rooted in not just doing this as business as usual in New York. I think that's really important, given that we're the financial heart of the country. This bill really centers cooperatives, micro businesses, ways for people to bridge from the legacy market into the regulated space and I think that's so crucial. This is part of the fabric of this bill, really to its core, is making sure that there will be opportunities for small businesses, for family farmers, for people all across the State who don't necessarily have access to huge amounts of capital.
New York was able, through the hard work of the bill co-sponsors, the majority leader, Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Senator Liz Krueger, they really fought for this provision, and they fought for the community reinvestment, knowing that this was so much also about justice and making sure that we are going to set up the cannabis economy in New York in a way that would actually benefit small businesses and New Yorkers who have been directly impacted by prohibition. I think that's really a watershed moment for New York.
Rebeca: Melissa Moore is New York State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. Melissa, thanks so much for joining us.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.