Most Americans now agree: The war on drugs is racist, destructive and costly. If we can admit that, then we must make serious efforts to repair the harm done by the drug war, even while recognizing that so much of that harm is clearly irreparable.
One of my earliest policy announcements in my candidacy for governor of New York was to support the legalization of marijuana. While many politicians rightfully tout the economic benefits of legalization, the bigger issue here is one of racial justice.
Eighty percent of New Yorkers arrested for marijuana possession are Black or Latino, even as white people use the drug at the same rate. We simply have to stop putting people of color in prison for something that white people do with impunity.
But on the same day of my announcement, former Republican House Speaker John Boehner declared that he was joining the board of a marijuana cultivation and distribution corporation and would lobby on behalf of an industry hitting $10 billion in sales.
It’s disgraceful that someone like John Boehner is going to cash in after fueling the policies that devastated communities of color during the war on drugs.
As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, noted in a conversation at the Drug Policy Alliance: “Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses, dreaming of cashing in big—big money, big businesses selling weed—after 40 years of impoverished Black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed. Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing?”
“I think we have to be willing, as we’re talking about legalization, to also start talking about reparations for the war on drugs, how to repair the harm caused,” said Alexander.
As public opinion has shifted toward legalization, rich white men like Boehner and the mega-corporations they serve are trying to cash in. We can’t let them rake in profits while thousands of people, mostly people of color, continue to sit in jail for possession and use.
The Drug Policy Alliance released a report last year that showed that in New York, a marijuana conviction can automatically disqualify someone from even working in a medical marijuana dispensary, much less owning and operating one. A path toward legalization built upon the architecture of mass incarceration is not one that I support.
The report also noted that New York state only permits medical marijuana licenses to a small group of corporations who sued the Department of Health when it attempted to expand the number of licenses. So far, there has been little to no commitment to diversity or equity in how our state decides to permit licenses.
We must ensure that every aspect of drug policy going forward places the interests, needs, and concerns of those who’ve been most harmed in the past at the center, not the margins—including who is able to benefit from the legalization of marijuana.
One major way that New York and our country can right our wrongs is by expunging people’s records and following models similar to those created in places like Oakland, which sets aside half of its marijuana licenses for low-income residents who have been convicted of a marijuana-related crime or who live in a community targeted by the drug war. And in Massachusetts, the new statewide marijuana equity program provides additional support, including loans and technical support to applicants from impacted communities.
Of course, legalizing marijuana could never undo the devastating legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining—we must look to housing policy, jobs, education, and other issues to address those wrongs. But by building equity into a massive new industry, legalization could begin to repair some of the harms of the “new Jim Crow” of mass incarceration.
The drug war criminalized addiction and targeted vulnerable people; the least we can do is ensure Black and Latino communities are prioritized for ownership and opportunity in the new legalized industry. There must be an end to mass incarceration, and the legalization of marijuana is but one of the many critical steps we must take in order to do so.
There are still many politicians in my home state—from the governor to the mayor—who don’t support the legalization of marijuana. We need bold, unflinching leadership to make sure our government is doing everything it can to address the racial and economic inequality that were enormously expanded by the war on drugs. Marijuana equity is an important step forward.
Cynthia Nixon is a lifelong New Yorker, actor, progressive advocate and a Democratic candidate for Governor of New York. Views expressed here are her own.
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