Equity Front and Center as Legalization Push Resumes

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Several dozen people gathered at Jamaica, Queens’ Spectrum Theatre this weekend to debate equitable legalization as state lawmakers aim to pass an adult use legalization bill before the session ends in June.

In large part due to disagreements over equity provisions, lawmakers were unable to come together before the April 1 deadline for the budget, through which Governor Andrew Cuomo hoped to pass legalization. Senator Diane Savino recently told Cannabis Wire that “there’s absolutely not the votes” for a standalone bill, but that’s the option left on the table.

Senator James Sanders Jr. sat in front of the audience alongside two panelists: Bradley Usher, chief of staff for Senator Liz Krueger, and Shaleen Title, of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission.

“I’ve been one of the voices that have said if [recreational cannabis legalization] does happen, it should go to the communities that have been impacted by first, drugs, and secondly the war on drugs,” Sanders said as he kicked off the event.

Sanders, who supports decriminalization, but not legalization, led the conversation — the second of a series of community talks around adult use legalization in New York State. Sanders also represents the 10th Senatorial District in New York, which is made up of 47 percent Black and 22 percent Hispanic residents.  

“The real experts are on the other side of the table,” Sanders said, pointing toward the audience. “We really need to hear from you… We want to hear what you think. What you want to do about this.”

When Sanders asked the crowd how many in the room support legalization, the audience seemed largely (though not overwhelmingly) in favor of a state bill that would legalize, tax, and regulate cannabis. But opponents, like Bruce Jacobs, 62, a Rockaways resident of 40 years, expressed concerns over increased youth access to cannabis.

“Young men and women have more important things than to be involved with marijuana,” said Jacobs, who also expressed skepticism over whether taxing legal cannabis would bring in money for the community. “We don’t want it blowing up in our face. We don’t want it on the streets.”

Usher, who represented Krueger, said the main reason that Krueger chose to introduce the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (Senate Bill S1527), or MRTA, was “to put an end to the discriminatory drug policy enforcement policies that disportionately impact African American and Latino communities.”

Krueger is “an unlikely carrier of this bill,” Usher said, because “she doesn’t really think people should smoke a lot of pot. But what she does think is that the [negative] impacts of having marijuana be illegal are greater than any health impacts of having marijuana be legal.”

Echoing the sentiments of other key New York lawmakers, such as Senate Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, Usher said that he does not believe Krueger would agree to pass a recreational cannabis bill that does not provide for resources to be directed back to the communities that have been disportionately affected by the war on drugs. “We need to make sure this is actually providing real opportunity for people and real programs that address the wrongs done by the drug war,” he continued.

Last week, the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) released a report that showed that Black and Hispanic people in the state had a larger percentage of cannabis-related violations relative to their percentage of the population, despite the decreasing trend of overall state cannabis-related charges. Similar trends are prevalent nationwide.

Title, who is a commissioner with the CCC said that a legalization bill must take these findings into account.

“Equity should be front and center in any legislation that New York passes. It can’t be an afterthought,” Title said. Today, there are 10 states and Washington, D.C. that have legalized cannabis since 2014. But, Title pointed out, “Equity is very difficult to achieve, and there is currently no functioning model.”

There is a growing consensus across the country from lawmakers and voters that equity needs to be part of the discussion about legalization. The latest example is in Illinois (Read Cannabis Wire’s coverage of Illinois’ path to legalization here). And, as Title emphasized, that it needs to be part of the discussion from the start.

“When anyone tries to say, ‘Let’s just pass a legalization law now and we’ll deal with equity later,’ they are lying,” Title said. “It will not be dealt with later and we’ll never have the power, collectively, that we do have right now.”

There are many similarities between Governor Cuomo’s proposal, the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act (CRTA), and Kreuger’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), said Usher. Both propose creating a regulatory structure within the state authority that would have the power to issue licenses for the sale of cannabis. Both reduce criminal penalties (though MRTA goes further in reducing penalties, particularly on possession and sale). Both ban sales to anyone under 21. Both provide for enforcement of the Clean Indoor Air Act and both prohibit smoking outside.

Differences lie mainly in the issues of home cultivation (MRTA allows a limited amount, while CRTA only allows it for patients in the medical program), the opting-out of cannabis sales in communities (CRTA proposes a county-centered approach, while MRTA is more locally focused), and slightly different tax rates.

A significant difference between the two bills is the approach to vertical integration, or the ability for producers of cannabis and cannabis products to also possess licenses to sell their products on the retail level. Vertical integration policies deeply affect the access that disportionately affected communities have to owning cannabis businesses, said Usher. MRTA bans vertical integration (except for microprocessors), whereas the CRTA model “allows the ten medical marijuana companies that currently operate in New York state to bid on licenses to sell retail,” said Usher. “They would be the only ones that would be allowed to be vertically integrated.”

Current vertically integrated medical cannabis companies in New York include national giants like MedMen, Curaleaf, and Acreage Holdings, among others.

“While there are some disagreements between the Governor’s proposal and the Senator’s bill, there is a lot of common ground and there’s not, from that perspective, a reason we couldn’t go forward,” Usher told Cannabis Wire. Pointing to the equity proposals in Sen. Krueger’s MRTA bill, Usher said that the one area that he believes MRTA has addressed significantly better than Cuomo’s plan is in ensuring that the money does go back into the community.

“If you don’t meet a certain goal in terms of reinvesting in communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war, then that’s not the right proposal for legalization and it should not be advanced,” Usher said.

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