Drug Reform Advocates Praise Marijuana Legalization in New York

Recreational marijuana was legalized in New York on March 31.
REUTERS/Cliff DesPeaux

Organizations advocating for drug policy reform in New York State are praising the legalization of recreational marijuana.

After passing the State Senate with a 40-23 vote and in the State Assembly by a 100-49 margin, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the “Marijuana Legalization and Taxation Act,” which allows New Yorkers 21 years or older to possess up to three ounces in public and up to five pounds of marijuana at home. Folks will be able to grow up to a dozen marijuana plants at once, but the regulations are still being hashed out.

Under the new law, individuals cannot be targeted for smelling like cannabis — and it is legal to smoke it anywhere that it is legal to smoke tobacco. Plus, certain weed-related convictions are immediately getting expunged.

In recognition of the long history of unfair treatment targeting Black and Latinx communities, the law stipulates that 40 percent of state cannabis tax revenue be reinvested in communities of color, according to the New York Times.

Advocates have long pointed to the ways in which the criminalization of marijuana harmed Black and brown New Yorkers. VOCAL-NY, a grassroots that advocates on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS and fights the drug war, mass incarceration, and homelessness, praised the legislation’s outcome on Twitter, stating it has “strong racist justice language” and is one of the “strongest marijuana legalization bills in the country.”

While Governor Cuomo approved the measure, advocates note that he opposed weed legalization in the past. In 2017, he told reporters marijuana was a “gateway drug” and he was “unconvinced on recreational marijuana.” The following year, he changed his tune.

“Decriminalization stalled for years as Senate Republicans and Governor Cuomo refused to move it forward,” VOCAL-NY tweeted. “But our campaign raised marijuana as a key racial justice issue, and we won local commitments to reduce arrests in NYC.”

In a statement, the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based group focused on drug legalization, said the bill’s passage is a sign of progress.

“A new era for marijuana justice is here,” Melissa Moore, director of New York’s Drug Policy Alliance, said in a written statement. “After years of hard work against long odds, New York has enacted one of the most ambitious marijuana legalization programs in the country. Let’s be clear — the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act is an outright victory for the communities hit hardest by the failed war on drugs.”

Moore added, “By placing community reinvestment, social equity, and justice front and center, this law is the new gold standard for reform efforts nationwide. Today we celebrate, tomorrow we work hard to make sure this law is implemented fairly and justly for all New Yorkers.”

For some lawmakers, the issue of criminalization hits close to home.

State Senator Jabari Brisport, who is the first out LGBTQ Black member of the New York State Legislature, told a public radio station in Rochester, New York, that he was almost killed over the drug as a teenager. Brisport was hanging out with a friend in lower Manhattan when a plainclothes officer accused his friend of being a drug dealer.

“When I asked the officer to show a badge or read my friend his rights, he pulled out his gun, pointed it directly at my face, and told me to back up,” Brisport said. “A plainclothes police officer nearly shot me in the face over weed.”

He added, “How many would-be future state senators have been accidental casualties of the war on drugs?”

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