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New York's marijuana law can finally reverse the drug war's harm

It took years, but the state's new law should be a model for the rest of the country.
Photo illustration of cannabis leaves sticking out of the Statue of Liberty torch.
Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

New York City isn't usually so late to trends. It's been 25 years since California first legalized marijuana for medical use. Almost nine years have passed since Colorado and Washington became the first states to make recreational cannabis legal. But residents of the fourth-largest state, home to the biggest city in the country, and one of the most progressive, had to watch as 13 other states and Washington, D.C., followed suit.

That changed Wednesday, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo finally signed a long-awaited bill to create a recreational marketplace for weed in the state. And given how much the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act does to erase decades of injustice, it was absolutely worth the wait.

The law is the result of years of painstaking negotiations between his vision and the Legislature's. I first became aware of this struggle when The New York Times reported in 2019 that it was actually Black lawmakers holding up the legalization bill Cuomo was pushing.

Those lawmakers had looked at the other states that had legalized recreational cannabis and realized that through intent or negligence, Black and brown communities were being left out of an industry centered on a product that had sent thousands of their members to jail. And who was winning out? White people.

Weed is cool now, you see. Or, rather, weed has gone from being symbolic of an edgy, racialized cool to the mainstream, acceptable to the moms who once were warned about the gateway drugs being brought into the cul-de-sac level of cool. Weed is featured in cooking competitions on Netflix. Weed has been the focus of multiple prestige TV shows. White weed moms use cannabis as a stand-in for wine as they build their Instagram aesthetics. One particularly twee store in SoHo sells CBD products with the same minimalist vibe that the Ordinary hawks skin care, clearly aimed at health-conscious white women's bank accounts.

Meanwhile, as recently as last year, it was Black New Yorkers who continued to bear the brunt of the recently lifted prohibition. New York Police Department data showed that nonwhite people made up 94 percent of marijuana arrests and summonses last year. An American Civil Liberties Union study of racial disparities in marijuana arrests likewise determined that despite usage's being about equal by population for white and Black Americans, Black users were more than three times as likely to be arrested for possession.

"After having borne the brunt of the 'war on drugs,' Black Americans are now largely missing out on the economic opportunities created by legalization," cannabis industry reporter Amanda Chicago Lewis wrote in 2016. At the time she covered the issue for BuzzFeed News, "every state that has legalized medical or recreational marijuana bans people with drug felonies from working at, owning, investing in, or sitting on the board of a cannabis business." That boxed out thousands of people who'd been trying to make ends meet when they were arrested or caught with middling amounts from the newly legalized industry in those states.

Lewis also reported that while she wasn't able to turn up official statistics about race and cannabis business ownership, she concluded from "more than 150 interviews with dispensary owners, industry insiders, and salespeople who interact with a lot of pot shops" that "fewer than three dozen of the 3,200 to 3,600 storefront marijuana dispensaries in the United States are owned by black people — about 1 percent." A 2017 survey didn't turn up much more promising data — of the respondents who owned or had any stake at all in marijuana businesses, only 4.3 percent were Black.

Weed has gone from being symbolic of an edgy, racialized cool to the mainstream, acceptable to the moms who once were warned about the gateway drugs being brought into the cul-de-sac level of cool.

That sort of gap wouldn't fly with Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the New York Assembly's majority leader, who happens to be a Black woman. "I haven't seen anyone do it correctly," she told The Times in 2019 of other states' legalization efforts.

"They thought we were going to trust that at the end of the day, these communities would be invested in. But that's not something I want to trust," she said. "If it's not required in the statute, then it won't happen."

Hence the stop-and-start efforts over the years in Albany. Peoples-Stokes won out big in the end — the final bill as signed looks much more like her original vision than Cuomo's, and it does way more than just make it legal to possess marijuana in the state.

"For years, Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Senator Liz Krueger have remained firm in their focus on legalization that would help communities most affected by cannabis prohibition and the war on drugs," Cannabis Wire co-founder Alyson Martin, an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School, told me in an email about the long effort to get a bill over the line. "As a result, New York now has one of the most equity-focused cannabis laws in the country, and goes farther than most other states when it comes to justice and community reinvestment."

That includes provisions that: bar landlords and businesses from discriminating against applicants who smoke weed, set a goal of having half of marijuana business licenses go to people from "communities disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of cannabis prohibition" and devote 40 percent of tax revenue left over from running the program to a community reinvestment fund. That's a big step up from Evanston, Illinois' use of marijuana tax revenue to fund a local reparations program.

Martin also pointed to the stipulations that allow for public consumption, "which ensure that people who don't own property or who live in public housing have somewhere to legally consume," as one of the best compromises that Cuomo was forced to accept. (Cuomo, let's not forget, is in the middle of a fight for his political life at the moment, weakening his negotiating hand.)

Fifty years after the war on drugs first kicked off, state after state has laid down its arms in recognition of the futility of keeping up the fight.

And, arguably most importantly, the new law expunges thousands of court records for people convicted of crimes that are no longer crimes. "We have literally destroyed the lives of multiple thousands of people," Peoples-Stokes told NBC New York. "That's what's good about this legislation. ... We're going to turn around the lives of some of those people and help them to be able to take care of themselves, their families and their communities."

Martin wrote to me, "Overall, while it's taken years of failed negotiations to get to this point, what's resulted is a far more equitable version of legalization in New York than previously thought possible."

It will still be a while before a dispensary opens up next to the bodega on my block — at least 18 months, Peoples-Stokes has estimated. In the meantime, there's still work to be done. Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, as the White House has recently reminded us; the House seems ready to change that even if the Senate isn't.

Fifty years after the war on drugs began, state after state has laid down its arms in recognition of the futility of keeping up the fight. In joining the throng, New York, in effect, has chosen to seek not just peace but also justice for those caught in the crossfire. The rest of the country should join the trend New York has kicked off.