There is a sense that a critical mass of public consciousness has been reached on the cannabis question in the Empire State. The governor’s office is studying marijuana legalization, and prosecutors in the Big Apple are recalibrating their methods to further de-emphasize low-level pot busts and correct a history of marijuana-related racial injustices in their policing.
Events unfolded rapidly in the news this week. First, the New York Times on May 13 ran the findings of its own data-crunching on the continuing racial disparity in marijuana arrests in New York City. Across the city, black people were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at eight times the rate of white people (excluding Hispanics) over the past three years, the Times found. Hispanic people were arrested at five times the rate of white people. In Manhattan, the gap is even starker: Black people there were arrested at 15 times the rate of white people. Black and white people consume cannabis at the same rates.
The New York Times study also dismissed the New York Police Department’s explanation that more residents in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods were calling to complain about marijuana. The Times found that among neighborhoods where residents called about marijuana use at the same rate, the police almost always made arrests at a higher rate in the area with more black residents.
Then, the following day, the Times reported that the district attorneys in Manhattan and Brooklyn are weighing plans to stop prosecuting the vast majority of those arrested on marijuana charges. The Brooklyn DA’s office, which in 2014 decided to stop prosecuting many low-level marijuana cases, is considering expanding its policy so that more people currently subject to arrest on pot charges won’t face prosecution — including those who smoke outdoors without creating a public nuisance.
The Manhattan DA’s office (which last year changed its plea guidelines to effectively lighten penalties for low-level marijuana offenders), would now decline to prosecute the vast majority of those arrested for pot under the plan.
Simultaneously, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a city-wide policy to address the problem, noting the unacceptable reality that 86 percent of those arrested for low-level pot possession in New York City last year were black or Hispanic.
“The NYPD will overhaul and reform its policies related to marijuana enforcement within the next 30 days,” de Blasio said May 15. “We must and we will end unnecessary arrests and end disparity in enforcement. It’s time for those to be a thing of the past, in New York City and all over this country.”
That same day, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill announced the formation of a 30-day working group to review the department’s pot enforcement policies, WPIX reported. “There are differences in arrest rates, and they have persisted going back many years, long before this current administration,” O’Neill said. “We need an honest assessment about why they exist and balance it in the context of the public safety needs of all communities.”
And Albany is also catching the wind of change. On May 14, the New York Post reported that the state Democratic Party is planning to pass a resolution at its upcoming convention to endorse cannabis legalization. The report did note Cynthia Nixon’s pressing of the issue in her challenge to incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo in this year’s Democratic primary.
The next day, the Post reported on findings by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer on the economic benefits of cannabis legalization for both the city and state. The state could generate $436 million annually and New York City $336 million by taxing legal cannabis sales in what would be a $3 billion market, Strainger found.
But he again emphasized the social justice aspect of the question. “This is not just about dollars — it’s about justice. Not only is marijuana an untapped revenue source for the City and the State, but the prosecution of marijuana-related crimes has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic communities for far too long,” Stringer said.
Cuomo’s own study of the cannabis legalization question, commissioned in January, is still underway. Last month, the New York State Health Department website put up a page on the study, noting that the health, education, criminal justice and public safety aspects of the question are under review — including a comparison of how these issues are playing out in states that have legalized.
The question is thrown in a stark light by a January study from the Drug Policy Alliance, entitled “From Prohibition to Progress: A Status Report on Marijuana Legalization.” On the positive side, it found that total cannabis arrests have declined sharply in states that have legalized. Colorado experienced an 88 percent drop between 2012 and 2015. Oregon saw a 96 percent drop from 2013 to 2016.
But there is also a downside. “Even after legalization, racial disparities in the enforcement of the remaining marijuana-related offenses have persisted,” the DPA report stated. “This can be mitigated by language in state laws limiting the extent to which law enforcement may use marijuana as the basis for detention, search or arrest. But, to fully remedy the unequal enforcement of marijuana laws, police practices must be reformed.”
Finally, there’s the flap over Cynthia Nixon’s controversial use of the word “reparations” for her proposal for a cannabis legalization policy designed to address the racial injustices of cannabis prohibition. While municipalities such as Oakland have adopted the term “cannabis equity” for this approach, Nixon’s coinage of “reparations” is more emotionally loaded — seeming to appropriate the demand that African Americans receive reparations for the long centuries of slavery and Jim Crow. Reparations for the injustices of the Drug War is an ambitious enough prospect without this ambiguity.
A group of black pastors penned an open letter to Nixon excoriating her over her use of the word. “Your comments make clear that you have no idea of the history and meaning behind the reparations debate in this country,” the pastors wrote, according to the New York Daily News. “It was a clueless, uninformed remark that did a disservice to black people who have fought for centuries for equal justice and basic human rights.”
But Terrell Jermaine Starr, writing in the African American news and commentary site The Root, came to Nixon’s defense: “You’ll remember that the progressive presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), was criticized in 2016 for not even wanting to discuss the possibility of reparations in any form. Now that a progressive candidate is running on a platform that not only calls for weed legalization but exploring it as a form of reparations, folks are taking issue with it?”
“The backlash doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Starr concluded.
It was rapper Killer Mike who perhaps provided the greatest clarity on the question. He addressed Nixon’s comments in an interview on “Real Times with Bill Maher.” He acknowledged Nixon’s “bad word usage” in confusing Drug War reparations with the greater issue of reparations for slavery. But specifically addressing the prior, he said: “[W]e deserve all the drug war reparations because we have shouldered the burden of the drug war. I want physical ownership of an industry that’s going to boom like alcohol… We deserve to own 50 percent of the marijuana market. We’ll partner with you.”
TELL US, how are you working to combat marijuana-related racial injustices in the cannabis industry?