Marijuana legalization: a chance to address past racial and ethnic injustices

SCOTT M. STRINGER | 12/20/2018, 12:52 p.m.
With statewide legalization of marijuana for adult use seeming more inevitable by the day, it’s important that we step back ...
Scott Stringer Office of City Comptroller Scott Stringer

With statewide legalization of marijuana for adult use seeming more inevitable by the day, it’s important that we step back and ask this question: Who is likely to reap the benefits? Our answer must be that in charting this new future, we have to address the inequities of the past and create a marketplace that lifts up the New Yorkers who have been most harmed by prohibition.

New York’s punitive approach to marijuana has ensnared hundreds of thousands of our neighbors in the criminal justice system, saddling them with debt and leading to the loss of jobs, student loans, housing and more. Even now, more than four decades after the passage of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, it is lower-income Black and Latinx New Yorkers who continue to be the primary subjects of marijuana-related enforcement—and who most feel its devastating effects.

A new report from my office shows just how stark that reality is: Between 2010 and 2017 in New York City, there were eight times as many arrests of Black and Latinx people for a marijuana-related offense as there were of white people, despite the fact that rates of cannabis use are similar across race and ethnicity. Arrests are also concentrated in a handful of areas. Controlling for population size, Brownsville and Ocean Hill in Brooklyn have the highest marijuana-related arrest rate of any neighborhood in the city by far, followed by East New York and Starrett City.

In Manhattan alone, there have been roughly 50,000 arrests for criminal possession of marijuana in the fifth degree (any amount burning or open to public view, or more than 25 grams) since 2010, the third-most of all the boroughs. While Washington Heights and East Harlem accounted for more than one-third of all arrests in Manhattan, the Upper East Side was home to less than 2 percent. In fact, the marijuana-related arrest rate in East Harlem, where median household income is just under $32,000, is a full 13 times higher than that on the Upper East Side, where households make well over $100,000 on average a year. What a difference a few blocks can make.

In addition to having lower incomes on average, our report shows that the neighborhoods with the highest rates of marijuana-related arrests have higher rates of unemployment and poverty and lower rates of home ownership and credit. Despite being the most affected by enforcement of the ban, they are likely, then, to face the most barriers to securing the resources, financing and loans needed to be able to get into the adult-use industry on the ground floor.

We have the opportunity now to ensure that the adult-use cannabis industry is not just inclusive of these New Yorkers but prioritizes them.

Too often, those who have profited most from mass incarceration are the first to benefit from legalization. And communities most ravaged by law enforcement are left to pick up the pieces. It’s time to flip the script.

That is why I am calling for policies to ensure equity is built into the foundation of the legal industry. First, we should direct a significant proportion of the tax revenues from legalization to the neighborhoods that have borne the ugliest consequences of prohibition. My office previously estimated that legalization could yield as much as $1.3 billion in annual tax revenues for New York, including $336 million at the city level. These funds should go to the communities, such as East Harlem and Washington Heights, hardest hit by the war on drugs.

Second, we should ensure people with prior marijuana-related convictions are eligible for cannabis licenses and that all applicants, whether for a license to manufacture, distribute or sell, have plans in place to hire them.

And, third, we should take steps now to create a municipal-level cannabis equity program, which would help local entrepreneurs access jobs in the new industry. Priority would be given to New Yorkers with prior convictions for marijuana offenses, their family members and those who live in the disproportionately impacted neighborhoods our report identifies.

New York City has an obligation to fight for the communities that have been over-policed for years. That includes ensuring that they have access to the revenue and opportunities an adult-use cannabis industry will generate.

We simply cannot move forward with legalization without reconciling with the past and pledging to do better. We owe each other, our fellow New Yorkers, that much.