Will Cuomo Woes Stall Legal Marijuana Push? Black and Latino New Yorkers Hit With Brunt of Pot Arrests


Gov. Andrew Cuomo first announced his plan to legalize marijuana in 2019 and Democrats have controlled the state Legislature for just as long.

But the state has yet to green-light the drug as New Yorkers of color keep getting arrested and issued summonses at vastly disproportionate rates.

New Yorkers of color –– the vast majority Black and Latino –– were hit with 94% of the pot-related arrests and summonses in 2020, according to an analysis of NYPD data by The Legal Aid Society.

About 57% of people who were arrested for marijuana were Black and 35.7% of them Latino, analysis showed. Meanwhile the city’s population is about 24% Black and 29% Latino, according to the Census Bureau.

“The data affirm that New Yorkers of color are still overwhelmingly shouldering the brunt of the NYPD’s racist marijuana enforcement while other communities get a free pass,” Anthony Posada, supervising attorney with the Community Justice Unit at The Legal Aid Society, said in a statement.

While the total number of marijuana arrests and summonses were down from 16,411 in 2019 to 10,811 in 2020, the disproportionate percentage of Black and Latino New Yorkers targeted by cops remained consistent through the pandemic.

The Legal Aid Society is among the groups calling on Cuomo and the state Legislature to pass the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, a measure proposed by two lawmakers, to end the cycle of arrests.

“To correct the racist origins of the prohibition of marijuana that very much exists today, Albany must enact the [MRTA] immediately to ensure that our clients, those from criminalized communities, will obtain equity, racial justice, and priority access to the benefits that legalization will create,” Posada said.

Dueling Bills

After promising to legalize marijuana during his 2018 reelection bid, a lack of support from Cuomo led legislation to stall the next year. Lawmakers were hopeful that marijuana legalization would pass in 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic sidelined plans once again.

The embattled Cuomo is currently trying to push his own marijuana legislation through the state’s annual budget process.

But it’s unclear how calls for the governor’s resignation amid investigations of sexual harassment allegations and undercounting of COVID-19 deaths of nursing home residents will play out during budget negotiations.

Cuomo’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Governor Andrew Cuomo stands with Senate Majority Leader Andrea-Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie before delivering his State of the State address in Albany.

Governor Andrew Cuomo stands with Senate Majority Leader Andrea-Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie before delivering his State of the State address in Albany, Jan. 8, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

On Feb. 16, the governor announced several revisions to his pot plan to win over support from lawmakers, including enabling delivery services and instituting a $100 million “cannabis social equity fund.”

The fund would allow nonprofit groups and local governments to apply for money to revitalize communities via a wide range of approved efforts, including job placement, financial literacy help and substance use disorder treatment.

But advocates, and even an opponent to recreational marijuana, agreed at hearing last month that they prefer the state Legislature’s bill over Cuomo’s proposal.

One advocate argued that Cuomo’s plan –– the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act –– would have an effective tax rate of 30% to 50%, while the state Legislature’s plan proposes an 18% tax rate.

The Legislature’s bill would also earmark a percentage of tax revenue from marijuana for a “Community Reinvestment Grant” program.

‘Legalization Needs to Get Done’

NY Cannabis Growers and Processors Association President Allan Gandelman told the State Senate Finance Committee and the Assembly Ways and Means Committee on February 23 that Cuomo’s plan would drive people to the illicit market or across state lines, and would largely benefit large corporations.

“The MRTA does an excellent job allowing cannabis home-grow, microbusinesses, home delivery and funding for social-equity applicants,” said Gandelman. “These policies should be, without question, integrated into any final legislation enacted by the state.

State Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), who first authored the recreational marijuana bill in 2013 with Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo), told THE CITY in a statement Tuesday that it’s too early to tell whether the measure will pass by the state budget’s April 1 deadline.

“This year’s budget and legislative process is still very much in flux, and I’m not going to attempt to make a prediction on where we will end up,” said Krueger.

“The bottom line is this: marijuana legalization needs to get done, it needs to get done soon, and it needs to get done the right way,” she added. “That means ensuring that those communities that have suffered the most from the drug war should be made whole and given the opportunity to benefit from the new legal economy. There’s no reason it can’t happen this session.”



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