BY JESSICA CASTILLO
For almost a decade, New York lawmakers have been fighting to legalize cannabis in their state. It wasn’t until March 2021 that they succeeded, with what Gothamist called “one of the most progressive legalized cannabis laws” in the United States. In passing the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA) on March 30, New York became the 15th state to legalize recreational cannabis, and the bill goes further than making it okay to smoke, vape, or consume cannabis in many places. It also provides a framework to ensure that the people harmed by prohibition can join and thrive in a booming industry, that revenue will be reinvested into primarily communities of color, and that the criminal records of those who engaged in work that is now legal will be effectively wiped clean.
“Cannabis legalization in New York will be centered on equity, investment into communities, economic opportunities for historically disenfranchised people, research, education, and public safety,” New York State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, one of the bill’s longtime sponsors, said in a statement a few days before the MRTA passed. She added that she was “excited to see the positive impact it will have for so many New Yorkers.”
“For too long the prohibition of cannabis disproportionately targeted communities of color with harsh prison sentences and after years of hard work, this landmark legislation provides justice for long-marginalized communities, embraces a new industry that will grow the economy, and establishes substantial safety guards for the public,” he said in a statement after the bill’s passing, nodding to a variety of inequities that have plagued New York for decades.
Because while the MRTA is progressive, it is also being passed in a state with an abysmal and overwhelmingly racist history regarding cannabis arrests and citations. And lawmakers hope it not only curbs the arrests and ticketing practices that have targeted Black and Latinx people in New York for decades, but also makes amends to those who have been unfairly targeted by such practices, as well as their communities for years to come.
The MRTA covers a lot of ground—and yes, in case you’re wondering, you can legally consume cannabis right now, with a few key limitations. As The New York Times explained, you can consume cannabis in your home (unless a landlord prohibits it), or anywhere in public where you can smoke tobacco.
Among other things, the bill legalizes recreational marijuana use for people over 21. (The state legalized medical marijuana use in 2014.) It also allows people to have up to three ounces of cannabis on them while they’re in public, though they can keep up to five pounds of cannabis in a “secure” place at home. It also paves the way for legal recreational sales, which may take up to 18 months to materialize.
But just as crucially, the bill automatically expunged the records of anyone who has a cannabis-related infraction on their record that would now be legal, without their needing to file additional paperwork. It also plans to direct a significant amount of the revenue created by the state’s new cannabis industry back into the communities most frequently targeted by racist policing policies. (A 2017 report found that 86 percent of the cannabis-related arrests made in New York City between 2014 and 2016 targeted Black and Latinx people, even though white New Yorkers and New Yorkers of color consumed cannabis at largely the same rates.)
“The equity piece has always been key, and it is one of the reasons we did not pass [the MRTA] a few years earlier,” State Senator Liz Kreuger, who has sponsored the bill since 2013, told MedMen's Ember over email. “Without carefully crafting what the legal cannabis market will look like, you can end up in a situation where the very people who have suffered most from prohibition, who we want to see benefit from legalization, are locked out of opportunities.”
To that end, the MRTA also creates the Cannabis Revenue Fund, which encompasses both recreational and medical marijuana sales. A portion of the fund will go to the basic expenses necessary to run several cannabis-related departments across the state; of the remaining fund, 40 percent will be reinvested into communities of color so that they can build businesses and equity in the cannabis industry, while 20 percent will support the Drug Treatment and Public Education Fund. (The remaining 40 percent will go to the State Lottery Fund for Education.)
“Ensuring that 40 percent of revenue goes to equity, through grants and programs to help small business, farms, and affected communities, and 40 percent goes to public education is about healing and repairing the damage done, and building more broadly shared prosperity going forward,” Sen. Kreuger said.
As New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who co-sponsored the MRTA, told Ember, this structure is vital to ensuring that the most amount of funds possible are redirected directly to the people.
“The Governor’s original proposal included a fixed amount of revenue that would be redirected, and that just wasn’t enough,” she said. “Under the MRTA, communities most impacted by marijuana prohibition are prioritized in major aspects of the legislation, from issuing licenses to distributing future revenue raised. My hope is that these provisions will, 1, build a new equitable market that begins to right the wrongs of past cannabis legislation, and 2, fuel the conversation around remaining New York laws that continue to disproportionately impact Black and brown communities in our criminal justice system.”
The MRTA doesn’t only want to change the law when it comes to who can use cannabis—it wants to help restructure opportunities for those interested in entering the business themselves. Fifty percent of licenses to grow and sell cannabis will be reserved for what the MRTA designates as “social equity” applicants.
“Extra priority is given to applicants impacted by the war on drugs, who are low-income and who have, or a close relative has, a marijuana-related conviction,” the State Senate said in a press release. “Preferences for licensing are also granted for licensees that set out a plan for benefiting communities and people disproportionately impacted by enforcement of cannabis laws.”
Licenses vary according to different elements of the cannabis supply chain. Those interested will be able to apply for cultivator and nursery licenses if they are interested in farming the plant to either immaturity or full maturity; processor licenses if they want to turn the plant into products like concentrates, edibles, and smokable products such as flowers; distributor and dispensary licenses for those interested in selling cannabis to either shops or consumers themselves; and licenses to create adult-consumption sites, like a smoking lounge; and more.
“The MRTA attempts to follow the three-tier model seen in the alcohol market, in which there is meant to be a division between those who create the products, those wholesaling the products, and those retailing products,” the State Senate noted. In other words, this ensures that big-name processors cannot control an entire vertical supply chain and thereby box out smaller players trying to break into the market.
Such provisions might be especially welcome to people who have fueled New York’s cannabis industry for decades, and would be understandably leery of corporations ready to set up shop. One New York City cannabis dealer told Gothamist he “was a little concerned initially” about the MRTA, but that the bill’s road toward legal sales means he is not out of a job. “There’s still wiggle room for us entrepreneurs, let’s say,” he said.
“The next step in New York is ensuring that the Office of Cannabis Management, which will oversee the legal market, is organized well with capable professionals, and that the regulations reflect the intent of the law,” Sen. Kreuger said. “And we need to monitor the development of the industry to ensure that we are actually meeting our equity goals, and not just building a system dominated by big business.”
While the stigma around cannabis is slowly going away, the fact remains that many people are still being unfairly punished for decisions that would now be legal. Twenty-six states have legalized or decriminalized cannabis, but only a portion of those states have enacted legislation to wipe the slate clean for those in need.
In 2019, New York state legislature passed Senate Bill S6579A, which automatically expunged charges and sentences for those who were found in possession of two ounces or less of cannabis; the 2021 MRTA bill increases that amount to three ounces. Most importantly these updates will happen automatically—those affected won’t have to file paperwork or go before a judge to request that their records be updated.
“It is crucial that New York’s legalized cannabis law addresses automatic expungement,” Senator Biaggi said. “Over the past two decades, New York has [seen] nearly 800,000 cannabis arrests and summons—the highest in the country. And we know that these arrests are disproportionately made to Black and brown New Yorkers, and not enforced equally.” She added that early MRTA proposals made by Governor Cuomo created processes for people to request expungement, thereby putting the onus on those affected and not the state. Such requirements can be an undue burden on those in need, and the process can last years.
“My hope is that the expungement rule will reverse barriers to education, housing, and employment for many Black and brown New Yorkers,” Senator Biaggi said. “They have faced so many setbacks due to marijuana usage, and I hope the expungement rule will be the start to restoring opportunities.
As Natalie Papillion, the director of strategic initiatives at The Last Prisoner Project, notes, people who must disclose a criminal record face a number of barriers, no matter the level of the charge against them. “Of course there are the psychological traumas of that police interaction and the court process,” she told Ember, adding that ensuing appearances can add up, causing someone to lose their job even before a conviction is levied. From there, a record may bar some people from obtaining the licences they need to do their job, or fail a background check, or from many public benefits which they and their family need.
“People should not have the collateral consequences of marijuana-related arrests, which, stepping back, should have never occurred,” she said. “Nine times out of ten, [these arrests] are really following them around for the rest of their lives.”
As a cannabis reform advocacy group, The Last Prisoner Project works across multiple levels to educate both lawmakers and the public about restorative justice in the cannabis space, and about how expungement can affect everything from applying to a job to immigraton status. Because of its reach, Papillion said expungement laws should be “foundational” to any cannabis reform laws, and that it is less about the government dispensing clemency than it is about owning up to wrong that has lasted generations.
“We know that from inception, marijuana prohibition was a policy rooted in racism and xenophobia,” she said. “It has no logical, scientific, medical, or public health basis that would have justified the punitive measures that lawmakers have taken for 100 years. So it’s not about, ‘You did something wrong and now we’re forgiving you, we’re so generous and benevolent.’ It’s that this law should have never existed and lawmakers are acknowledging their mistakes.”
Lawmakers are hopeful that the MRTA’s passing serves as yet another milestone, but they know the fight to rectify decades of stigma and carceral trauma isn’t over. “Every time a state legalizes adult-use cannabis and the sky doesn’t fall, it reduces some of the stigma that has built up over decades of prohibition,” Sen. Kreuger said. While she added that she has “no interest” in consuming herself, she recognized her duty as a lawmaker to hold the law accountable to best serve its people.
“What legalization is about is avoiding the racially motivated distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ drugs, as my colleague Sen. Diane Savino put it,” she said. “Whether it will move the needle on other issues where people of color have been targeted, I don’t know, but I’m hopeful. It certainly won’t hurt.”