At the rally that headlined the Big Apple’s May 4 Cannabis Parade, after its march down Broadway from Midtown Manhattan, a multicultural crowd of impassioned youth filled Union Square. There, they grooved to sounds of live rap, reggae and funk, as activists chimed in between sets to fight for cannabis legalization.
None of this was surprising to longtime followers of the annual freak-fest, held in the city for more than a generation. What made the difference this year is that one of those pro-cannabis activists on the stage was none other than New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.
Part of a new wave of progressive insurgent Democrats and a former City Council member from Brooklyn, Williams just became the city’s public advocate in a special election earlier this year. He is now the second most powerful figure in city government after Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Jumaane Williams Comes Out of the Cannabis Closet
Making it all the more startling, in his speech, Williams actually admitted that he had “sold a little bit of bud” in his younger years. As Gothamist website quoted Williams’ words at the rally: “If I was caught, I might not have been an elected official. I might not have been able to get a job.”
Williams went on to demand that a legal cannabis sector in New York state must be designed to benefit those who were criminalized for using or selling the herb in the prohibitionist past.
“Nobody should make money off marijuana until the communities that have been ravaged by the over-policing and criminalization of it make money,” Williams said. “No one should make money off of marijuana until black and brown communities have access to sell the thing that will be legal that they were arrested for, that they couldn’t get jobs for, that they couldn’t get student loans for.”
This was actually not the first time Williams had come out of the cannabis closet. That was a few days earlier, at an April 29 legalization forum in Brooklyn — one of several such community meetings held around the city in recent months. At the “Talking About Mary Jane” forum, held at the Brooklyn Public Library main branch, Williams revealed he sold small amounts of cannabis as a student at Brooklyn Technical High School in the early ’90s.
“I don’t think I’ve said this publicly before but in high school, I sold weed for maybe a year or two,” Williams said at the forum, according to the Brooklyn Eagle.
From the Counterculture to the Mainstream
Other speakers at the Union Square rally echoed Williams’s call for an equitable cannabis order in a post-legalization New York — including another elected official, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat. Activist voices included the Drug Policy Alliance‘s New York state director Kassandra Frederique, Empire State NORML‘s legislative director Doug Greene and Josh Weinstein of the networking group CannaGather.
Headlining performers notably included Clip Payne’s 420 Funk Mob (including members of Parliament-Funkadelic), according to an on-the-scene report from CelebStoner website.
It has been the proverbial long strange trip for New York’s Cannabis Parade. The name itself signifies the event’s mainstreaming, echoing the various ethnic pride parades that punctuate the city’s calendar.
But it had long been known as the Marijuana March, and defied authorities with public smoking even during the harshly intolerant years when Rudy Giuliani was mayor. It was initially launched in 1973 as the Pot Parade by the Yippies — the radical counterculture group that was also behind the famous protests at the Chicago 1968 Democratic convention. Since 1999, the New York parade has been the flagship event of an international movement, with a Global Marijuana March held the first Saturday in May in hundreds of cities across the world.
The star of the show at last year’s Cannabis Parade was TV personality and then-New York gubernatorial hopeful Cynthia Nixon.
It was Nixon’s candidacy that lit the fire under incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who beat her in September’s Democratic primary partly by adopting her cause of cannabis legalization. Cuomo actually introduced a legalization measure in the statehouse in Albany this year and made sounds similar to those heard at the Union Square rally.
“We have to do it in a way that creates an economic opportunity for poor communities and people who paid the price and not for rich corporations who are going to come in to make a buck,” Cuomo said after introducing his legislation, according to the Westchester Journal News.
Stalemate in Albany
However, many activists in New York consider Cuomo to be an obstructionist on the question. His legalization measure was introduced as a rider to the state budget, seemingly in an effort to undercut the previously introduced — and much more far-reaching — Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, or MRTA. At the end of March, the state budget was approved by lawmakers in Albany, but without Cuomo’s legalization measure. On top of that, his move split support for MRTA, which means that cannabis legalization, considered a shoo-in for 2019 by many, may not happen in New York this year.
Assemblyman Walter Mosley, a Brooklyn Democrat, spoke for many when he explained why he considered Cuomo’s measure too weak. In an interview with Brooklyn’s Kings County Politics website, Mosley emphasized the question of expungement of past cannabis convictions. MRTA, unlike Cuomo’s measure, at least contains provisions for resentencing for past convictions.
“For decades the war on drugs, perpetrated by local and national administrations, targeted young black and brown men,” Mosley said. “We must ensure that the criminal records that were unfairly levied are not just sealed but expunged, and that future revenue from legalization be invested in these communities, funding both education and jobs programs. We cannot move forward with an adult-use program until we know that these injustices of the past are made right.”
Such sentiments issuing from elected officialdom clearly indicate that the vision of a free and equitable cannabis order long advanced by grassroots campaigners in New York state has now hit the mainstream — embraced, at least, by the left wing of the state’s Democratic party.
Mustering the wherewithal to manifest this vision in reality, however, remains a political challenge.
TELL US, where do your city officials stand on cannabis?