By: Jason Klimek, Esq., Legal Advisor to Roc NORML, and Mary Kruger, Start SMART NY Coalition Member and Executive Director of Roc NORML
Sixty-five percent of New York residents support the legalization of cannabis. Democrats control the Governor’s office as well as majorities in both the Assembly and the Senate for the first time in a decade. After repeated calls over by politicians to pass adult-use as part of New York’s budget, New Yorkers are waking up on April 1st to find out that they’ve been the subject of, what looks like, an April Fool’s Day prank, several months in the making. Cannabis legalization was not included in the 2019 – 2020 New York State Budget.
Both the legislature and the Governor’s office, after hearing New Yorkers’ opinions, have repeatedly stated cannabis legislation must address social justice concerns and avoid creating a cannabis economy that will allow large businesses to thrive to the detriment of small business. Focusing on social justice and small business will allow those communities that have been devastated by the failed war on drugs to participate in the cannabis economy and attempt to right the wrongs of the past. The longer New York waits, the less likely those goals will come to fruition. In the meantime, communities will continue to see their members arrested, prosecuted and jailed for cannabis-related offenses.
Beyond the possibility that New York may see unified control disappear in upcoming elections, if New York to wait until 2020 or longer, the probability of federal legalization drastically increases. If federal legalization were to be implemented prior to New York legalization, small business will have absolutely no chance to compete against the largest businesses who have been operating legally in other states for years and have amassed hundreds of millions of dollars of investments.
Even if New York were to legalize before the federal government, there continues to exist a high probability that New York will be surrounded by legal states, as Pennsylvania is introducing legislation to legalize, both Connecticut and Vermont are discussing the possibility of legalization, and New Jersey is sure to attempt to pass legislation again. Those surrounding states will create the markets in which small businesses will thrive and draw cannabis revenue to those states. The effect will be to deprive New York of the jobs and tax revenue while sticking New York with any issues that may arise from the legalization of cannabis.
Legalization is still possible this year, but only if we continue to put the pressure on our elected officials to get it done. We have been talking a lot about the CRTA in the past few months, the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act, legislation drafted to legalize cannabis for adult-use, written by a team created by Governor Cuomo. This bill didn’t offer the social and racial justice, community reinvestment in a meaningful way, or consumer rights that we deserve. Our allies in the Senate and Assembly were willing to negotiate on some points, and agreed they couldn’t compromise on important issues for which New Yorkers voiced strong support:
The adult-use market must be created in a way that benefits and reinvests back into communities that have been most harmed and targeted in the War on Drugs
Provisions must be included that would build an equitable and diverse workforce, with meaningful and ownership level work in the industry
Restorative justice is included, in the form of sealing and resentencing past convictions for crimes that would now be legal after the legislation is passed
Provisions are included for home cultivation, allowing consumers and patients to grow their own cannabis if they wish; this is similar to the model we see in the thriving craft beer industry in New York
The Start SMART NY campaign has been working with Senator Liz Krueger, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes for over five years on drafting legislation to legalize cannabis for adult-use in New York. They each sponsored companion legislation in the Assembly and Senate, the MRTA, or Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act. These allies in the Senate and Assembly have been working tirelessly with experts to create smart, sustainable legislation that offers marijuana justice and legalization, and we need to help them continue to do this work now, more than ever, and get this bill perfected and passed by the end of the legislative session in June.
While the MRTA isn’t perfect legislation, it has about 90% of what we’re hoping to see the final draft have; compared to the CRTA which only have about 50% of what we’re hoping to see. The rhetoric from the Governor’s office last month about this issue being rushed because we just started having these conversations simply aren’t true; the MRTA is on its fourth draft and was originally introduced in both the Senate and Assembly five years ago. These conversations have been happening and our allies are willing to negotiate with the Governor, but he needs to do just that – negotiate.
We must see the legislation rooted in justice, equity and restitution back into communities that have been devastated from the War on Drugs. When folks ask why, the answers are quite simple:
Marijuana prohibition has not been effective in stopping or remotely curbing marijuana usage. Marijuana remains the most widely used illegal substance nationally, with half of Americans admitting having tried the substance in their lifetime. Despite this widespread experimental user, the rate of regular use has not changed significantly since the 1980s, steadily remaining at about 1 in 8 Americans – despite significant increases in enforcement over that time.
Marijuana prohibition has not increased public safety. According to a Human Rights Watch report published in 2012, people who enter the criminal justice system with an arrest for public possession of marijuana are no more likely to be threats to public safety than someone who has not been arrested.
Marijuana prohibition has been disproportionately enforced in communities of color and has led to devastating collateral consequences. An arrest and conviction for a marijuana offense can prohibit individuals from fully participating in society, inhibiting their ability to get a loan, get a job, go to college, or to access public housing, among other negative impacts. Statewide, people of color have borne these collateral consequences at alarming rates, with Black and Latino people representing 80% of those arrested for simple possession in 2016 alone, despite equal rates of use across populations.
Marijuana decriminalization is not enough. New York State first decriminalized personal marijuana possession in 1977—yet more than 800,000 people have been arrested for low-level marijuana possession in the past 20 years alone. Although New York officials, including Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, have previously recognized these arrests as ineffective, unjust, and racially discriminatory, they still continue across the state because of a loophole in the law. Ending prohibition would end these arrests.
Ending marijuana prohibition is a cost-saving measure. Legalizing marijuana will drastically improve the state’s ability to make investments that benefit and advance all New Yorkers, such as education, housing, and infrastructure. In 2010, New York spent more than $650 million enforcing marijuana prohibition. Those resources went to increased policing in communities of color, resulting in more than 50,000 marijuana arrests for simple possession that year, usually only for small amounts of marijuana.
Go to norml.org/action-center/item/
Go to vote.norml.org and find your New York State Assembly Member and Senator. Then call and tell them you want to see smart legislation passed, and you support the MRTA, sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes.
Now is not the time to back down – now is the time for the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers who support legalization to make our voices heard loud and clear; we demand marijuana justice and legalization, and we won’t stop until we get it.
Start SMART NY – Sensible Marijuana Access through Regulated Trade – is the campaign dedicated to ending marijuana prohibition in New York. We believe that it is time to stop the ineffective, racially biased, and unjust enforcement of marijuana prohibition and to create a new, well-regulated, and inclusive marijuana industry that is rooted in racial and economic justice.