Momentum Builds for Legalization

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By Tiffany A. Vargas

Many thought that New York would be one step closer to becoming to 12th state to legalize marijuana when the budget was finalized in March 2019. Despite Governor Andrew Cuomo’s outlined plan to legalize, it did not make it into the state budget. However, this setback hasn’t extinguished the passionate New Yorkers who believe marijuana should be legalized this year.

President Richard Nixon started the war on drugs in 1971. It began as a campaign to criminalize drugs, such as marijuana, and to end their trafficking and abuse. It strengthened the use of mandatory minimum sentencing which made first time offenders serve a required amount of time for their crime. This campaign has devolved over the decades because of new laws throughout the country allowing drugs, like marijuana, to be legal but the goals have not changed.

Currently, over 76,000 inmates, or 45 percent of all inmates, are in prison because of a drug offense, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Despite black and white people using marijuana at about the same rate, black people are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In New York City, the population of those arrested for felony and misdemeanor drug offenses is overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.

Jumaane Williams, public advocate for New York, has been outspoken about his own experience with marijuana. He mentioned that he used to sell weed as a teenager but was never caught and, because of that, he was able to run and gain the position he has today. “Nobody should make money off of marijuana until the communities who have been ravaged by the overpolicing and criminalization of it make money,” he said. “No one should make money off marijuana until black and brown communities have access to sell the thing that would be legal.”

Dozens of New Yorkers attended the Cannabis Parade and Rally at Union Square Park on May 4. The Youth International Party, also known as Yippies, started the event in 1973 as a “Smoke-In” where they passed around joints in Tompkins Square Park. It has now evolved into an event where elected officials and organization leaders speak out about the drug war and marijuana prohibition.

Kassandra Frederique

Kassandra Frederique, the New York State director at Drug Policy Alliance, attended the parade and spoke about how criminalizing the use of drugs is ineffective. “There are people that are in charge right now that don’t think that this is an important issue,” she said. “People that think that it is okay that people get deported. That they lose their kids. That they lose their housing. That they lose their scholarships. That they can’t get jobs. All for a plant. That’s a waste of our time and resources.”

Some, like Frederique, are hoping that weed will not only be legalized but that those who were charged with misdemeanors involving use or possessions of marijuana will have their records expunged. Washington State legalized marijuana back in 2012 for people 21 and older and has expunged the records of more than 500 offenders thus far. Being charged for a misdemeanor drug offense can prevent people from getting useful services, such as mortgages and federal financial aid. This can be detrimental to the students who want to pursue a higher education but need the financial help or to adults who would like to purchase a house. Resolutions to expunge all city misdemeanors were passed by the New York City Council this year but there’s no clear timeline for when it’ll be passed into law.

New York had legalized marijuana for medical purposes through the Compassionate Care Act in July 2014, and although it’s not legalized for recreational purposes, it doesn’t stop New Yorkers from using it that way. Residents like Kayla Quiñones, 25, a teacher’s aid for toddlers with Autism, has been using cannabis on and off for eight years to help with her anxiety and provide pain relief. After giving up on pills, like ibuprofen, she turned to marijuana for help and has been using it daily since. “It’s helped keep me calm, find my personality, bond with my parents, connect with my spirit,” she said. “Cannabis has opened my eyes to so many wonderful and horrible things. But it helps me be more aware of myself and my surroundings.”

Despite enjoying its use since before she was 21 years old, Quiñones thinks that there should be restrictions regarding the use of cannabis. New York requires patients for medical marijuana to be at least 18 years old to register themselves, but Governor Andrew Cuomo has suggested that people must be 21 years of age to use it recreationally. Quiñones is inclined to agree. “THC should be treated like alcohol to the point where you shouldn’t be doing it in public or around other people’s children,” she said.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio and Cuomo said that they plan on using some of the tax money generated from marijuana sales to fund the MTA. Black lawmakers, and other supporters, in New York disagree with the plan, saying that minority communities should benefit from the businesses because they are the ones affected the most. These lawmakers asked that the money go towards job training programs and that minorities should be allowed licenses to grow and sell marijuana.

Frederique wants to make sure that the black and Hispanic communities receive money so that they can repair the harm that has been done. “That also means that the money that they get, gets reinvested in the communities most impacted by criminal justice intervention,” she said. “If the cops know where to arrest people, then they know where to put the money back.”

Despite still wanting to use the tax money from cannabis to fund the MTA, Cuomo also agrees that the money should also be used to help the communities impacted the most by the criminalization of the drug. “Stop the disproportionate criminal impact on communities of color,” he said during the 2019 State of the State address. “And let’s create an industry that empowers the poor communities that pay the price and not the rich corporations who come in to make a profit.”

While Cuomo may have missed his chance to legalize marijuana earlier this year because of other important proposals that needed attention like education and the Plastic Bag Ban, he is still hoping to legalize it by the end of 2019. He says he is waiting for legislative leaders to make their decision by the end of the legislative year in June.

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