“The drug war has been a war against people of color since its inception decades ago. Data, studies, reports, and court decisions on stops, arrests, charges, pleas, and sentencing reach the same shameful conclusion: Blacks are treated far more harshly than whites,” argues Ezekiel Edwards, the director of the Criminal Law Reform Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.
What Edwards and other advocates for reform are saying is true.
So true that Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, across the country are making the connection between specific calls for marijuana legalization and the broader movement for criminal-justice reform. A growing number of prosecutors and judges, legislators, and even some governors, have come to recognize the need for sweeping reforms. There is more and more acceptance of the wisdom of the argument, which was well stated by Edwards in 2017, that, “While ending the drug war won’t end other manifestations of racism in the criminal justice system, it will remove one of the system’s most frequently used and abused tools to harm and overcriminalize communities of color. Fighting for racial justice means reforming the criminal punishment system, and that has to include ending the war on drugs.”
The key now is to bring a deep understanding of these issues into debates at the top levels of our politics. That is why it mattered when New York Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon went big, and smart, on the issue of marijuana legalization in her primary debate with Andrew Cuomo.
Asked about the emphasis she has placed on legalization throughout her campaign, Nixon replied, “I think it’s very important that we legalize marijuana in New York State. Eight other states have done it, plus the District of Columbia. There are a lot of reasons to do it, but first and foremost, because it’s a racial-justice issue. People across all ethnic and racial lines use marijuana at roughly the same rate, but the arrests for marijuana are 80 percent black and Latino.”
She then went deeper, arguing that efforts must be made to assure that the economic benefits of legalization must go to the communities that have been most most harmed by the drug war. “We need to not only legalize marijuana here, but when this multibillion-dollar industry comes to New York we need to prioritize the communities that have been most harmed by the War on Drugs,” Nixon explained during Wednesday’s debate at Hofstra University. “We need to follow the Oakland model, we need to follow the Massachusetts model and prioritize those communities not only for licenses, but for small-business loans and other supports. And we need to use the tens of millions of dollars that we will have in revenue to invest in those communities that have been targeted, and pay for job training and pay for education programs. And we need to parole people who are in jail for marijuana arrests and we need to expunge their records and use some of this tax revenue for them to reenter.”
Nixon concluded by rejecting drug-war language and scare tactics in order to focus on core issues: “[We’re] not talking about children smoking marijuana, right? We’re talking about adults and we’re talking about that effectively marijuana, in New York State, has been legal for white people for a long time and it’s time to make it legal for everybody else.”
Cuomo adopted a decidedly more cautious approach, recounting details of a report by a task force on the issue and noting that he had supported decriminalizing low levels of marijuana. “I disagree with my opponent that the revenues should go to reparations,” he said, with regard to Nixon’s plans for using revenues to help communities and individuals that have been hardest hit by drug-war policies. “But I do believe the benefits outweigh the risks. That was the conclusion of a panel of experts.”
Nixon and Cuomo wrangled over the question of whether the challenger’s focus on legalization had moved the governor toward a more reasonable stance. But it was clear in the debate—as it has been throughout the campaign—that Nixon is the candidate who has been drawing attention to the issue and demanding that it be discussed.
Again and again she returned to a basic premise that must be a part of debates about criminal-justice reform: “What we need to stop is the very uneven arrests of people of color for marijuana.”