Four northeastern governors met for a summit on cannabis and vaping in New York City on October 17. Governors Andrew Cuomo (New York), Ned Lamont (Connecticut), Phil Murphy (New Jersey) and Tom Wolf (Pennsylvania), all Democrats, discussed legalization, social justice, regulation, public safety and other issues at Cuomo’s Manhattan office. It was, as Cuomo noted, the first-ever such meeting held amongst the lawmakers.
And Murphy stressed that above all, making sure cannabis legalization advances social justice in their states is critical. “We’ve got a shocking gap between persons incarcerated in our system along racial lines, and it’s almost entirely due to low-end marijuana offenses,” he said. “Putting aside all of the other factors that come into the cannabis discussion, the social justice, at least in New Jersey, screams out at us and it’s why we’ve come to the table with such passion.”
The four states represented have all either attempted or flirted with cannabis legalization, without yet achieving it:
In March, New Jersey lawmakers called off a vote on legislation that was backed by Gov. Murphy and passed by the State Assembly when too few state senators signed on to support it. The proposal included an expedited record expungement process and incentives for disadvantaged folks to enter the industry. As Murphy and his allies frantically negotiated with senators behind the scenes, lawmakers blamed a rushed process ahead of the planned vote for its cancellation.
Then in June, New York lawmakers failed to advance legislation because of disputes over how cannabis tax revenues would be allocated to communities that suffer disparate drug enforcement. Legislators also cited lukewarm enthusiasm on Cuomo’s part, and the legislature’s inability to pass legalization through the state budget process earlier in the year.
Meanwhile in Connecticut, three related legalization bills that included expungement and community reinvestment measures passed out of state legislative committees. But each lacked the support of enough lawmakers to go to a vote. In May, lawmakers discussed the possibility of putting the issue to voters on a popular ballot in 2020. Newly-elected Governor Lamont has called legalization one of his priorities.
In Pennsylvania, in the same week as the governors’ summit, legislators proposed a comprehensive legalization bill. The move came just weeks after Governor Wolf finally voiced support for legalization, having opposed it for years. The bill would allow automatic expungement of certain cannabis convictions, and provide interest-free loans to disadvantaged cannabis entrepreneurs.
Notice the common theme across each of these political debates over legal weed? There is a focus on legalization not just as an economic boon or business opportunity, but as a social justice imperative.
This is thanks in large part to the tireless work of cannabis activists and advocates, who have centered the racism and injustice of cannabis enforcement in legalization efforts.
“The Northeast is the final frontier for cannabis. Whatever we do here is what the rest of the country will model after.”
“We have made this a focal talking point since day one,” Nelson Guerrero, co-founder and executive director of Cannabis Cultural Association (CCA), which advocates for legalization in New York and federally, told Filter.
“When New York tried to pass its budget this year with minimal social justice or equity provisions, we stood up and said no,” Guerrero said. “For better or for worse, the news media here in New York has supported us in our efforts on social justice and equity in an emerging cannabis industry. There is no industry without this, where older Caucasian folks make all the money while Black and Brown folks are still being locked up on a regular basis.”
Pennsylvania cannabis advocates like Sheena Robertson of Cannabis Noire have also worked to make sure that while their state may be behind on legalization, social justice will be central when legalization arrives.
“Activists like myself have worked diligently to ensure the conversation stays centered around restorative justice and tangible opportunities and reform efforts that release and absolve cannabis offenders,” she said. “Its important to remind legislators that the communities impacted are the communities they were elected to serve.”
Robertson commended the progress made in her state so far on social justice and equity in cannabis by lawmakers like state Senators Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) and Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery/Delaware), who authored the recent bill.
“The current bill being proposed is a great start to addressing many of our concerns,” she said. “So the goal now is to ensure it has the support and traction it needs to get through, and the allocation of services and resources reach their intended recipients. I do believe that collaborating with community leaders will be key as we move along.”
As New York lawmakers consider a renewed attempt at legalization, Guerrero and other activists are calling for expungement of cannabis convictions, social equity provisions to reserve cannabis licenses for people most impacted by the War on Drugs, and the allocation of tax revenues and other resources to these communities.
Guerrero, an Ecuadorian-American, is also broadening the cannabis coalition by working with immigrants’ rights activists to protect immigrants who are targeted for deportation for cannabis law violations and other reasons.
It’s an ambitious set of proposals. But Guerrero believes this is a critical moment for cannabis in both his home state and the nation. “The Northeast is the final frontier for cannabis,” he said. “Whatever we do here is what the rest of the country will model after.”
“We’ve seen what’s happened out west and in Colorado,” he continued. “Aside from some states like Illinois and Massachusetts, social justice and equity have been neglected in favor of tax revenues for state coffers. That can’t happen here. After what happened this year, it’s non-negotiable. We either legalize this right or not legalize at all.”
Image of cannabis legalization demonstration from July 2017 courtesy of Cannabis Cultural Association.