Equity must be part of cannabis legislation from day one

JAVIER LOPEZ | 2/28/2019, 1:58 p.m.
As New York works to legalize adult-use marijuana, state lawmakers have the opportunity to achieve true racial equity and justice, ...

As New York works to legalize adult-use marijuana, state lawmakers have the opportunity to achieve true racial equity and justice, but it will require a legislative and operational agenda that goes beyond the bureaucratic “promise” of equity.

For decades, low income communities have been destroyed by the war on drugs. In New York City, more than one third of the marijuana arrests took place in seven of the 10 neighborhoods with the lowest median household income, according to a report by City Comptroller Scott Stringer. The damage has been done. The legalization of adult-use marijuana may expunge records but does nothing to reverse that damage. Expungement is not equity.

We need a law that addresses the millions of people of color who have been impacted by the discriminatory practices of the War on Drugs and offers meaningful pathways so these communities benefit from the formal cannabis economy. That means those individuals harmed would get priority in obtaining licenses, training, financial startup funds, waivers of applications and, if returning from jail, help getting housing, health care and an education.

Sure, you can say “slow down” or mistakenly believe that equity and justice are baked into the proposed Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. But the truth is the MRTA penned by State Sen. Liz Krueger and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes is a good start, but it doesn’t fully address the above points either.

There is a pervasive belief in many political and government spaces that if you just acknowledge racial inequities in some way (i.e. trainings, task forces, enhanced data analysis or “game-changing” reports) the system will somehow change course. I have made this mistake.

As a former assistant commissioner with the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Center for Health Equity, my colleagues and I routinely championed health equity in a multi-level bureaucracy, yet our efforts often failed to address the root causes as to why communities of color have far worse health outcomes than white communities. Even with the biggest and brightest stars of the health equity movement, our efforts did not close racial inequities in a meaningful way.

The MRTA and Gov. Cuomo’s adult-use marijuana legalization plan must have a clear equity plan on day one, a plan that checks many boxes. First, people of color and the formerly incarcerated must be able to grow wealth in this industry, not be marginalized by the existing large, corporate license holders. In addition, current medical license holders should not be able to buy a fast-track into the industry—this will only make it more difficult for communities impacted by the war on drugs to break into this business. When cannabis-related offenses are automatically vacated, there must be support for re-entry. Anything less will just recriminalize in the legalized industry.

Racial equity and justice outcomes cannot be achieved by ambiguous efforts. The public health community and other bureaucracies have already learned this. Legalized adult-use cannabis is a way to get social justice right but that will only happen if there is equity on day one. We cannot trust systems such as state agencies and oversight boards to get this right on their own. The law must be clear. There is no autocorrect here.

Javier Lopez is the former assistant commissioner for the New York City Health Department’s Center for Equity.