The markers of “progressive” drug policy are familiar to anyone keeping an eye on the cannabis legalization movement in the United States: criminal record expungement and nominal equity measures such as license prioritization and zero-interest loans. When lawmakers include these progressive policies in legalization laws such as the one that passed in Illinois in early July, many activists applaud their passage.
But according to Kassandra Frederique, New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, these measures are a good start — nothing less, but nothing more. Frederique is eager to expand the conversation about ending prohibition beyond the purely carceral: arrest rates, incarceration rates, expungement.
“Expungement is not reparative justice,” she says. “Expungement is cleaning up the mess you already created.”
It’s easy for her to tick off examples of other areas where the damages of cannabis criminalization live on a regular basis. Her list includes: “the way marijuana is used when drug-testing newborns or people who have child welfare cases, the fact that you can lose your job if you are a teacher and you smoke and the [Department of Education] finds out, the fact that [marijuana use] was the number four reason why someone was inadmissible to the U.S. or deported, the fact that in some places you can’t get access to social services like food stamps, the fact that you can get kicked out of public housing… Marijuana prohibition is a gateway to devastation.”
A native New Yorker (who playfully challenges me when I say I’m “also in the city” since I’m calling her from Brooklyn), Frederique has always been passionate about progress.
“I grew up in a very politically conscious and involved household,” she says. “My family is Haitian, so politics and social justice are inbred in our culture.”
Frederique was working to get her masters in social work at Columbia University when she was placed at an internship at the New York City headquarters of Drug Policy Alliance. The DPA is a 19-year-old non-profit whose stated mission is to “advance those policies and attitudes that best reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition, and to promote the sovereignty of individuals over their minds and bodies.”
It was there Frederique says she was introduced to the fight for drug policy reform for the first time.
“I was very aware of drug policies and incarcerating people and people struggling with drugs, but not so much the people working to change those laws,” she says. “But it never occurred to me that there would be people out there like this.”
She also recalls having to “unlearn” her preconceived biases once at the DPA.
“I blamed drugs for the devastation I saw in my community,” she says. “The thing that was important for me was understanding that drugs were a scapegoat.”
Now, Frederique works to enact legislation that will both end marijuana prohibition and shift the conversation around cannabis — and illicit drugs in general — into a broader, more restorative mode.
New York, along with its neighbor New Jersey, was widely expected to legalize recreational cannabis this year. However, it didn’t happen in either state, despite some eleventh-hour work by activists and sympathetic lawmakers alike.
Frederique says nothing about this is new, not the fight for legalization in the Empire State nor the foot-dragging by politicians with misplaced priorities.
She traces the push for cannabis legalization in New York back to a campaign, started in 2010, to reduce the number of marijuana arrests. They declined as a result, dipping more than 80% in New York City — a victory, sure, but not the end goal that the DPA is still working towards.
“We recognized that even though we lowered the number of marijuana arrests, the effects of marijuana prohibition were still impacting people’s everyday lives,” she says.
In 2019, she says the powerful players up in Albany didn’t prioritize repairing the harms of prohibition, which is why three different bills that would have legalized cannabis failed to pass in the New York State Senate, and why Gov. Andrew Cuomo declined to add cannabis legalization to the state budget.
“Why we were unable to push [legalization] over the finish line was because people have special interests,” she says. “They put politics over people. So, we are going to be working to expose that as we move forward into the next legislative session.”
Ultimately, however, she says she would rather wait for the right kind of legalization bill rather than accept a compromise that might be more palatable to the state legislature’s less progressive members.
“Oftentimes, people believe that we have to meet people where they’re at,” she says. “I think there is a place for that. I don’t think it’s with cannabis. If we go based on incrementalism, it will always benefit those that have been least affected by marijuana prohibition.”
It’s easy to advocate for cannabis legalization and then stop there. No more risk of jail time for keeping an ounce of flower handy? Great! No more fines for lighting up in public? Utopian!
But Frederique stresses the importance of expanding the discourse around recreational cannabis legalization to include real solutions for the harms experienced by the people cannabis prohibition has affected the most: poor people, black people, Latinx people, women, queer people and non-citizens.
“There’s a larger conversation about how cannabis prohibition has detrimentally impacted communities,” she says. “And now you have people making money off of this substance, and communities standing to not benefit from that at all.”
To Frederique, truly progressive policy goes far beyond mandating the expungement of cannabis charges and (nominally) establishing equity programs. She says the reparative justice needed to repair the damage the War on Drugs has wrought for decades involves four steps: acknowledgement, atonement, accountability and action. In her eyes, we’re stuck on step one.
“We are getting to a place where people cannot have a conversation about cannabis without acknowledging the very real harms of cannabis prohibition. But there’s no atonement or accountability as to what happened. And our conversations around action need to be: How do we shift power? How do we invest in the communities and people that have been most harmed? How do prioritize them in the space?”
She says that while she believes equity programs are part of this solution, there’s more to be done. In her opinion, the criminalization of cannabis must be de-escalated after a regulated market is established. This complete decriminalization is essential for preventing further damage to marginalized communities — where members may not have the resources to enter the legal industry once it is established.
“I think the worst case scenario [for legalization] is that we create a regulatory market and keep criminalization in its place,” she says. “That is the antithesis of what we are fighting for. I think we have to take the big swing at what is the more perfect version.”
Frederique sees the push towards this kind of justice as non-negotiable, and urges interested parties to listen closely to who’s talking about equity and when.
“Cannabis reform gives us the opportunity to share power, and to disrupt social control,” Frederique says. “People are okay to have the conversation about how communities are devastated by marijuana prohibition when it pushes for cannabis legalization or regulation. They are less willing to have that conversation when it talks about giving power up. That’s when people don’t want to talk about racial justice. That’s when people want to let those communities go.”
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