New York State Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes saw firsthand the disastrous impacts of the War on Drugs on Black Americans when she was a county legislator and community activist in Buffalo. She saw how Black people arrested for consuming or possessing small amounts of marijuana would pay an outsize price through incarceration—a price with ripple effects in their lives and the lives of their families. She says that New York’s landmark legalization law, which she authored and former Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law last March, “could have been passed sooner,” but that she was committed to making sure that the law the state eventually passed addressed both equity and mass incarceration head-on.
New York’s Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act enshrines two critical equity issues into law: It is set up to allow for up to 50 percent of licenses for dispensaries and social consumption sites to go to communities unduly impacted by the War on Drugs, and it commits to returning 40 percent of tax revenue back to those communities in the form of community reinvestment grants. The law also provides for the automatic expungement of prior cannabis convictions.
Now, from Erie County to East Harlem, minority entrepreneurs are gearing up for a legalization rollout that will bring those businesses into their communities. At issue, however, is whether those same communities will welcome new drug businesses into their midst after enduring the ravages of crack cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, and drug-related consequences such as stop-and-frisk that have unduly impacted Black and minority communities. But, as Peoples-Stokes observes, “marijuana is the largest underground market in the state and probably in the world,” and prohibition had provided a rolling excuse to “lock Black people up” for generations.
Legalization will bring normalization and regulation—and leave it to local regulators to decide where and how to allow dispensaries and social consumption sites in their communities, without the additional layers of licensing that have stymied California’s recreational rollout. “Community boards in New York City will be engaged in that process,” says Peoples-Stokes, adding that there are already local laws governing where liquor stores can be sited, and that, for example, federal law already prohibits cigarette smoking in public housing. Cannabis imbibers, she says, can look forward to the day when they can smoke legally and in socially sanctioned spaces.
Massachusetts was the first state to focus on social equity in its 2016 recreational weed law, but Peoples-Stokes says no other state that has legalized cannabis in recent years enshrined it in law. She recently visited Colorado and notes that a decade after it legalized recreational cannabis, there’s one Black-owned dispensary in the entire state; California’s balky road to legalization didn’t prioritize equity issues for its Black and minority communities. “In New York, you had to make it intentional,” she says. “There’s no state that we could have modeled [MRTA] after, because no other state does it. If you look at states in the Midwest, white-majority states, none of their desire to legalize had anything to do with correcting the wrongs of mass incarceration.”
For her part, New York Governor Kathy Hochul says she’s committed to making the state’s pot economy the most diverse and inclusive in the country, as she announced plans for a $200 million privately financed “social equity fund” that would provide a bridge between entrepreneurs and investors. Funding or grant recipients under the proposal include women, minorities, farmers, disabled veterans, and families of War on Drugs victims. The proposal in the works has raised a few eyebrows for its reliance on private investors to pay for the state’s social equity goals—and it’s unknown at present who those investors may be.
Earlier in March, New York passed rules that prioritized license applicants who have served time or been impacted by a family member who had. Those equity applicants also have to have an already established business, for two years, in order to qualify.
It’s worth noting that the rollout and the law itself have prompted some concern in a grower community that is mostly white and male. Though they’ve been exonerated of any previous pot convictions in New York, growers also tend to have spent longer times in jail—often much longer. A grower source says online chat boards have been arguing that those who have served the longest sentences on pot charges should get the biggest leg up in the new economy. While Black and Latinx pot arrests are wildly disproportionate compared to whites’, the vast majority of arrests in those communities are possession-related. But though the law is explicit about devoting funds to communities impacted by the War on Drugs, the regulatory rollout this year has so far appeared to emphasize taking care of all its casualties.
Under the broader MRTA, New York State gave municipalities and counties until the end of 2021 to decide whether to opt in to having dispensaries or social consumption sites in their communities. The Rockefeller Institute of Government tracked the numbers and reported that 751 of New York’s 1,520 municipalities have opted in to allowing dispensaries in their communities, while 636 opted in to allow social consumption sites or another of the options.
By contrast, California’s 2016 recreational bill created a licensing bureaucracy that tied on-site consumption licenses to existing dispensary licenses and allowed for several tiers of licensing from the state to local level. As a result—and despite an initial promise of Amsterdam-style cannabis cafes (“coffee shops”) springing up across the state—California still hasn’t opened a single social consumption space (though plans are at long last afoot for such sites in West Hollywood).
Omar Figueora, one of California’s most prominent cannabis attorneys, recognizing the opportunities in New York, recently opened a second law office in Brooklyn to assist residents here with licensing. Figueora has also authored books on both the California and New York legalization regimes. “The barrier for entry into the cannabis market is much lower in New York than in California,” he says. “All you need in New York is an empty space with adequate ventilation” to open a cannabis lounge.
Figueroa’s associate in Brooklyn, attorney Andrew Kingsdale, notes that California’s decades-long dalliance with cannabis legalization served to create all sorts of “whiplash and confusion over the years” as that state moved from a local free-the-weed movement in San Francisco to pushing on the medical side, “then into the different collectives and cooperatives, then the billionaire-funded effort” for full recreational legalization. “New York did a lot of things right from the outset,” says Kingsdale, “in an intentional and reasonable manner. It’s a much more egalitarian and equitable and sustainable market for the craft growers and other aficionados and associated businesses.”
Figueroa has been based in Sebastopol, in Sonoma County, for decades and says one of the reasons he’s put out a second shingle in New York is that the state is a “more favorable terrain for having lots of thriving small businesses.” He’s not interested in representing large corporations that produce inferior cannabis and says, “New York is a place where it’s possible to have the finest cannabis in the world, and that dovetails with our California client base, many of whom are curious about New York and the possibilities there. New York, as far as I’m concerned, is the center of the universe, and it’s going to be where the action is.”
Figueroa envisions a new New Amsterdam and expresses excitement about, for example, bodega bud shops offering their flowers over the counter (a reliable source in Brooklyn confirms that under-the-counter sales are already brisk). Figueroa says there’s a robust education process underway in Black and minority communities that have been ravaged by the war on drugs and mass incarceration, and he is optimistic that Peoples-Stokes’s vision for reefer reparations will prevail. Black and minority neighborhoods will “start to see it as an asset to the community instead of a magnet for crime.” And he believes those communities will welcome local entrepreneurs over the Big Cannabis corporate operators that have infested the California market. And, as Peoples-Stokes highlights, the plant we’re talking about here has all sorts of potential for social and medical benefits. “Society hasn’t done enough on the wellness perspective,” she says, “and we haven’t been able to study it because it’s been illegal.”