For two years in a row now, political efforts to legalize marijuana in the state of New York have gone nowhere, with the arrival of COVID-19 in the spring putting an end to the most recent attempt.
Continuing marijuana prohibition is about much more than when weed dispensaries can open up shop; it’s about maintaining drug enforcement that heavily falls on Black and Brown New Yorkers. For longtime Canarsie, Brooklyn resident Floyd Jarvis, it is personal: He has experienced the impact of marijuana arrests firsthand.
Jarvis was also incarcerated at a state prison in Greene County between 2012 and 2016. Working as a library clerk there, he studied how marijuana legalization was enacted in Colorado and Washington in 2012, and medical marijuana legalization in New York in 2014. “From prison I always kept an eye on the changing world of cannabis,” he told Filter, “as an avid cannabis user, prior to prison.”
Since returning to his hometown of Canarsie, Jarvis has been busy fighting to close the Rikers Island jail, mentoring hundreds of young Black and Latino men through CUNY Brooklyn, founding a community garden in Canarsie, and advocating for marijuana legalization in New York—as well as pursuing his master’s degree in urban policy.
“I shy away from calling myself an activist,” he said. “Being Black and male, that word can pigeonhole me in many ways. I say I resumed my work as a community leader.”
Jarvis was born in Guyana before moving to Canarsie as a child. The predominantly Black neighborhood on the southeast side of Brooklyn, bordering the Jamaica Bay, has grown rapidly since the 1990s, in large part because of immigration from the Caribbean and West Indies.
“I know of five Black men that have been deported for cannabis.”
To understand how marijuana arrests affect people in Canarsie, it helps to look at it in the context of other neighborhoods. A May 2018 analysis by the New York Times did just this, by comparing Canarsie to the Greenpoint neighborhood over on Brooklyn’s northwest side.
What the Times found was that in both areas, police and city officials received very similar rates of phone complaints about marijuana. But police arrested far more people for marijuana possession in Canarsie—actually, four times as many as in Greenpoint per capita. Canarsie’s population is 81 percent Black; Greenpoint’s is only 4 percent.
In case you think this particular comparison is an outlier, the Times found this pattern repeated throughout the five boroughs. Blacker areas had higher marijuana arrest rates than whiter areas—even when similar rates of residents called in complaints. New York police claimed that racial disparities in marijuana arrests were due to them receiving higher complaints in certain neighborhoods. The Times analysis debunked that.
Jarvis knows the impact of marijuana prohibition not just in the numbers, but in the lives. “I know of five Black men that have been deported for cannabis,” he said. “I have been arrested in Canarsie three times for cannabis. There’s many young men who have been arrested for it in Canarsie.”
Floyd Jarvis. Photo courtesy of Jarvis.
Just around the time Jarvis and I first spoke, video circulated on Twitter of a police-brutality incident in his neighborhood. The NYPD claimed they were responding to a report of gunfire when they found 20-year-old Fitzroy Gayle and another man sitting together in a park. They claimed the two were smoking marijuana, and that Gayle fled the scene.
The result was that seven police officers brutalized Gayle, pushing him against a wall and the ground. He was arrested and charged with several offenses, including marijuana possession. Months after the incident, all the officers involved remain on active duty while the department conducts an internal investigation.
“This is a perfect example of targeting,” commented Jarvis. Were this drug legal, this would not be happening. He suffered because of prohibition.”
Jarvis has found an opportunity to lobby his local elected officials on the issue of marijuana legalization. In March 2019, Assemblywoman Jaime Williams and State Senator Roxanne Persaud, each representing Canarsie, hosted a press conference where they announced their opposition to the first state legalization effort that year. They claimed then that recreational marijuana would endanger their communities.
Jarvis wrote an op-ed at the time, firing back at Williams and Persaud and urging them to embrace legalization to start to reverse the over-policing and criminalization of Black and Latino men in Canarsie and its surrounding area.
Nearly a year later, he had the chance to see Williams again at an unlikely event: a public funeral procession in honor of hip hop artist Pop Smoke, a Canarsie native who was murdered at his home in California in February 2020. Jarvis was helping put up an art mural.
He approached Williams and asked her about the recent police incident with Fitzroy Gayle. “The first thing I said was, do you see why the police approached this young man? It was for ganja. I’m not saying she’s on board—but because of that, she and I have begun meaningful conversations about what legal cannabis would look like in Canarsie.”
“It’s a green rush and a money grab; we have to be very cautious of that. No one has gotten this right yet.”
Jarvis believes legalization could heal social and generational divides in the Black community. “If you smoke and your parents don’t smoke it, or they’re against it because it’s illegal, that causes friction in many Black Canarsie households between boomers and millennials,” he said. “That doesn’t need to happen.”
Yet advocates like Jarvis don’t just want marijuana legalization—they want reform that specifically addresses decades of disproportionate enforcement and targeting of Black and Latinx people in New York. Jarvis is well aware of how legalization has played out in states like California or Massachusetts, for better and for worse, on this issue.
Filter has reported on the efforts of Massachusetts lawmakers and regulators to create the nation’s first statewide cannabis equity program. The program gives certain priorities and privileges to help award cannabis business licenses to applicants who have suffered some form of harm from past marijuana prohibition.
The Massachusetts program has also faced heavy criticism for its slow track record in actually getting equity license applicants approved. There are many reasons for that—the biggest of which include state requirements that applicants also get local approval before opening shop, and the lack of any specific grant or loan program to fund these applicants.
“I think New York should follow and learn from what’s happening in Massachusetts. The social equity applicants are suffering,” said Jarvis. “It’s a green rush and a money grab; we have to be very cautious of that. No one has gotten this right yet.”
Jarvis and the Start SMART NY campaign, of which he is a part, had asked for a five-year moratorium on awarding certain cannabis licenses—except to equity applicants, who would get priority.
Jarvis is especially interested in showing how cannabis legalization and taxation could work hand-in-hand with something New York City has actually innovated on: participatory budgeting. Under the leadership of former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the NYC Council expanded this policy, which allows city residents to vote directly on how they want money spent in their districts.
“We’re calling for cannabis tax dollars to be put into the participatory budgeting funds.”
Each City Council member must opt in to this program to enact it in their jurisdiction. To date, 33 of 51 council members allow participatory budgeting in their districts, allowing their residents more say in how a combined $35 million is spent. The money can be used to improve resources including parks, roads, schools, sanitation or community gardens.
“We’re calling for cannabis tax dollars to be put into the participatory budgeting funds, to give it a shot in the arm,” explained Jarvis. “To bring people targeted by marijuana prohibition into this civic process, we allow for this money to go towards cannabis equity spending. And they get a direct say in how to use it.”
While various New York legalization plans have agreed that cannabis tax revenue should be reinvested in communities harmed by prohibition, the details vary widely. For Jarvis, his neighborhood is an outlier in an unexpected way—among predominantly Black NYC neighborhoods with high marijuana arrest rates, his had the highest household median income in 2016.
In much wealthier NYC neighborhoods like the Upper East and West Sides or Park Slope, Black and Latinx people made up a majority of marijuana arrests—and sometimes pretty much all of them. The data show that race, not income, is the most pertinent factor. And while city officials like Comptroller Scott Stringer have released their own guidelines for marijuana legalization and where the money should go—in Stringer’s case, prioritizing lower-income neighborhoods with high marijuana arrest rates—Jarvis says they don’t fully address the problem.
“If you use income as a marker for cannabis reinvestment, then neighborhoods like Canarsie—Flatlands, East Flatbush, Northeast Bronx, Jamaica—would lose out because you don’t use race as a marker,” he pointed out. “Cannabis prosecution is a racial issue.”
Besides marijuana legalization, Jarvis is also active on another issue affecting his community: access to housing. As of 2018, Canarsie and neighboring East New York had the highest rates of home foreclosures in the entire city. Jarvis again cites racism as the main factor, explaining that banks historically charged exorbitant interest rates on Black homeowners. Today, Black homeowners in Canarsie are increasingly targeted by practices like deed theft, fraudulent documents, liens for unpaid utilities and predatory foreclosures.
The crisis has received the attention of lawmakers, sparking a debate over the state government’s under-funding of legal services to help homeowners fight foreclosures. In theory, cannabis tax dollars could be allocated towards these kinds of services—if residents fight for it.
While the pandemic thwarted New York legalization this year, Jarvis and the Start SMART NY campaign are getting ready to try again in the 2021 legislative session. For him and many others, marijuana legalization represents a golden opportunity to create a more just society. But it has to be done right.
Top photo of Rockaway Parkway in Carnasie by Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain