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Ensuring Social & Racial Justice in Cannabis

By: Zach Sarkis, Founder & Executive Director of NY HempLab

This article was originally written and published in the Rochester Business Journal.

(Note, the views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the view of NY HempLab)



The History

American anti-cannabis policy can be traced back to the 1930’s, when Harry J. Anslinger led the charge of cannabis prohibition, including industrial hemp, through racially targeted propaganda (“Reefer Madness”) that vilified the Mexican and Black communities. His influence would continue to shape said policy through five presidential candidacies.


In 1971, the nation officially declared a “War on Drugs,” stating that drug abuse was “public enemy number one.” However, according to a revealing 2016 interview, President Nixon’s Domestic Policy Chief John Ehrlichman made clear the administration’s intent:


“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people...We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”


Just sit with that for a moment.


Since 1970, our incarcerated population has increased by 700% ­­– 2.3 million people in jail and prison today, far outpacing population growth and crime. In 1970 there were only 357,292. Disproportionately, those arrested have been young, Black men from low income communities, all feeding into the for profit industrial prison complex.


Over the past twenty years, New York State had the troubling distinction of being the marijuana arrest capital of the country, with more than 800,000 marijuana possession arrests – despite the fact that low-level marijuana possession has been decriminalized since 1977.



The Present

Such disproportionate criminalization continues to this day. Data from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services from 2010 to 2018 show the vast majority of people arrested for low-level marijuana possession in the city of Rochester were Black (81%) — despite the fact that there are comparable numbers of Black and white residents living in Rochester, and government reports consistently show that Black and white people consume marijuana at similar rates.

In 2018, Rochester-based Constellation Brands invested over $4 billion dollars into the Canadian based, global cannabis conglomerate, Canopy Growth. How many of us have profited from such an investment into “legal cannabis”, forty miles across Lake Ontario, while young people of color in our community are still being subjugated to the racially-biased judicial system here in New York?


The Rockefeller Institute projects the existing NYS cannabis industry to have a value of $3.5 billion. This unregulated market consists of an ecosystem of thousands of small and mid sized actors, or businesses, supplying New York City & State — one of the largest cannabis markets in the world.


The most staggering aspect of Constellation's investment is that it is well over half a billion dollars larger than the projected existing NYS cannabis market. With those kinds of funds, it is evident that a corporation could “buy out” an entire market. What happens then? The is not an issue of not whether there is a market, but who will have access to that market, and in turn, who will own it.


Today, NYS stands at the edge of cannabis legalization for adult use. For three years, our governor has made it a “priority” to legalize cannabis, and two bills have competed for implementation — neither have been successful.


The first bill, the MRTA (Marijauana Reform & Taxation Act), has been championed by Assembly Majority Leader, the honorable Crystal People Stokes and State Senator Liz Krueger. This bill is exemplary in its commitment to social and racial justice, with emphasis on community reinvestment and small business incentives. Opponents are critical of the MRTA’s proposition to reinvest 50% of cannabis tax revenue back into communities harmed by cannabis prohibition.


The second bill is the CRTA (Cannabis Reform & Taxation Act), known as the governor’s bill. This bill has been continually modified to appear more like the MRTA, but critics point to the fact that it still lacks the language to enforce equity & reinvestment, the foundations for any true form of social and racial justice.


Designing for inclusivity:


In the months leading up to the pre-pandemic legislative session, many industry leaders began to waiver in their commitment to social and racial justice and responsibility - claiming it is better to legalize today and then amend for tomorrow. Though I understand the intent and sentiment behind legalization for the sake of legalization, I shame the hype.


We either legalize cannabis in a multidisciplinary approach, or we consciously choose to ignore the harm that has been, and continues to be done to marginalized people and communities impacted by prohibition.


New York must do better than the states that have legalized before us.


Advocates and experts across the country agree this will require intentional legislation focusing on equity from day one. Beyond the bill, it is up to every community to implement rules and regulations that will help foster a robust and diversified industry, including but not limited to:


  • Inclusive Leadership training to ensure diverse leadership in the space.

  • Business Incubators & support services, ensuring SMB have the resources to compete.

  • WorkForce Development Training, so businesses can hire local

  • License prioritization and preferential zoning for SMB

  • Providing access to low or no interest loans to small and minority owned businesses

  • Formation of a community reinvestment fund, with public input governing allocation


The leadership community of Rochester must commit to hearing what the public wants and needs to have a healthy, thriving cannabis industry, while healing communities impacted by prohibition. This will require education, public forums and above all, civic engagement with our elected officials and key stakeholders to ensure that policy and practices reflect the city we dream of building.


May the Flower City capitalize on this green wave, and ensure that the high tide floats all boats.

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