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New York Cannabis Clash: Should Marijuana Taxes Fund Subways Or Social Justice?

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In a growing number of states, the conversation around marijuana has shifted from “should it be legalized?” to “how should it be legalized?” More specifically, reform advocates are fighting to ensure that tax revenue from retail cannabis sales goes toward repairing the societal harms of prohibition, which has disproportionately impacted communities of color.

That evolution in the reform movement has been on full display in New York this week, as lawmakers and office seekers have rallied behind a report calling for marijuana tax revenue to fund the maintenance and renovation of New York City’s subway system. In theory, it might sound like a reasonable appropriation of government funds that would satisfy the city’s disenchanted metro riders.

Melissa Mark-Viverito (D), a former New York City Council speaker who’s running for the city’s public advocate office, quickly adopted the proposal, including cannabis legalization in her four-point plan to “help fund transit improvements” in New York City. She said she’d push for “no less than half of marijuana tax revenues” to be used for public transit.

But the proposal and the support its garnered among some New Yorkers has put advocacy groups and government figures at odds. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), for one, issued a press release on Thursday emphasizing the need to take the money the state is expected to reap from legalization and invest it in the individuals and communities that have suffered the most under a policy of prohibition.

“We cannot direct revenues to entities like the MTA, NYCHA and Health and Hospitals, which have consistently propagated harm and been complicit in the arrest crusade by targeting people who have used marijuana by calling the police or taking black and Latina mothers away from their children after nonconsensual maternal drug tests,” DPA New York State deputy director Melissa Moore wrote in an editorial for New York Daily News.

“Marijuana revenues do need to be directed to marginalized communities, and the people first in line need to be the people who have been ravaged by overpolicing and impacted by other insidious criminalization. That means sending cash to the areas where New Yorkers of color have lost their homes, been separated from their children and been denied citizenship and freedom because of racist enforcement.”

DPA cited a new report from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, which provides a recent history of racially and socioeconomically discriminatory cannabis enforcement activities in neighborhoods across the city. In the report, Stringer recognizes that the state stands to gain hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue from retail cannabis sales, but he also warns that “uneven enforcement” and “the lack of diversity in the cannabis industry” foreshadows “potential inequities in who will benefit—and, indeed, who will profit—from a legal adult-use cannabis industry.”

The official made three recommendations to ensure that the state’s future legal marijuana program is socially equitable, including establishing a cannabis equity program and adopting inclusive licensee eligibility requirements.

DPA is holding a conference in Albany next week that will lay strategies for how to base legalization in “racial, economic, and social justice.” The event comes just in time, as a working group in New York has been tasked with drafting an adult-use legalization bill, which is expected to be taken up during the new legislative session beginning in January.

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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