New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced new amendments to a proposed adult use cannabis program, the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act (CRTA), which would effectively legalize cannabis use. His main proposals, which include doubling funding for a social equity program intended to promote “racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in the adult-use cannabis industry” from $50 million to $100 million, and introducing delivery services that could create jobs in directly impacted communities, look good on paper. But they fall far short of addressing the harm caused by New York State and the NYPD’s decades long war on cannabis use.
Penalties for “improper” sales, or sales which occur outside of the profit-generating bureaucracy of the state, range from Class A misdemeanor charges, which can result in up to one year of incarceration, to class E and D felony charges, which carry a maximum penalty of seven years of incarceration. Creating a formal cannabis industry while continuing to criminalize New Yorkers who participate in the informal industry shows that Governor Cuomo has once again prioritized profit and good PR over people.
New York has a long history of violence against people who use drugs, especially those from Black, Brown, and working class communities. Although possessing small amounts of cannabis has been decriminalized in New York since 1977, decades of carceral and racist policies like stop and frisk have devastated communities. In New York in 2018, Black people were eight times as likely and Latinx people were five times as likely to be arrested for low level cannabis possession compared to white people.
Generations of people have been forced to suffer through the housing, employment, and social discrimination that accompanies a criminal record. Despite Cuomo’s claim that the CRTA will assist communities “that have been harmed through disproportionate enforcement of the war on drugs,” his proposal does not even include a provision for automatic expungement for those affected by previous policy.
Cuomo has argued that his proposal will “address and correct decades of institutional wrongs.” But the contents of the CRTA clearly center the creation of a lucrative industry over the needs of directly affected communities. Cannabis legalization is expected to generate upwards of 3.5 billion dollars, including hundreds of millions in tax revenue.
Competing legislation would split most of the tax revenue between community grants, drug treatment, and public education. Outside of the $100 earmarked for limited funding for social services and a planned increase of said amount by $10 million each following year until 2026, Cuomo’s proposal makes no assurances that the majority of the profits will go back into the community. This is especially concerning considering that the NYPD’s 2021 budget is around $10.2 billion, which is largely generated through taxes of the kind Cuomo is proposing.
Reducing the negative consequences of cannabis use is a deeper project than legalizing it and using the profits to make up for a budget shortfall. Harm reduction entails centering the voices and leadership of drug users and those most directly affected by drug use and associated negative impacts such as police violence and incarceration.
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Under the current system, it is impossible to create a world in which people who use drugs can do so with safety and dignity. Capitalism, police, prisons, and all related structures must be abolished, and we must reinvest those resources into community based resources and solutions in order for people to use cannabis without fear of incarceration and state violence.