This year, New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made his third attempt at legalizing adult-use cannabis in New York. While his plans could benefit the average smoker, it would ultimately leave people of color out of the cannabis marketplace.
In the 2021 New York State Budget Report, Cuomo’s office outlines their protocol for distributing cannabis licenses, stating:
“The office shall have the authority to hold a competitive bidding process, including an auction, to determine the registered organization(s) authorized to be licensed to cultivate, process, distribute and/or sell adult-use cannabis and to collect the fees generated from such auction to administer the office’s social and economic equity plan and other duties prescribed by this chapter.”
If this amended proposal is sent to legislatures in April and approved as part of the budget report, the bidding process would mean that wealthy people or businesses can join bidding wars to acquire a limited number of licenses to legally sell cannabis in New York.
The cost of a license can range anywhere from $6,000 (like in Michigan) to $120,000 (like in California), according to Way of Life, a medical cannabis resource. However, these licenses could sell for a higher price in New York, considering how competitive the auction would be.
Cannabis in New York
Known for having some of the highest user rates in the world, cannabis consumption in New York is only growing. Close to two million New Yorkers regularly use cannabis. About 1.6 million residents consume cannabis about once per month, and 2.4 million use it about once per year.
Cuomo believes this high rate of consumption could bring over $350 million in state tax revenue.
The War on Drugs
According to MJBizDaily, over 80% of cannabis business owners are white. This is because they have not been as heavily affected by the War on Drugs as people of color have. While white people earn millions off of the plant, people of color are being arrested on a constant basis.
Although Cuomo’s policy would invest $100 million of revenue back into the communities affected by the War on Drugs, it does not provide opportunity for Black entrepreneurs to own their own business.
Moreso, this proposal would also reduce the intensity of past criminal sales, but not abolish them altogether.
The cannabis industry is expected to reach $24 billion by 2025, and much of these financial milestones will only benefit white people unless policymakers prioritize social equity.
Cannabis arrests and charges towards people of color in New York City are high. From 2019 to 2020, 97% of all cannabis arrests in Albany were Black people.
According to the Innocence Project, in 2018, only 287 of the 4,081 cannabis arrests made by the NYPD were white people. The rest were Black and Latinx.
Even though white and Black people use cannabis at similar rates, Black Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession, nationally.
In New York City alone, people of color are eight times more likely to be arrested for cannabis, double the national average. More specifically, The New York Times reported in 2018:
“Across the city, black people were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at eight times the rate of white, non-Hispanic people over the past three years […]. Hispanic people were arrested at five times the rate of white people. In Manhattan, the gap is even starker: Black people there were arrested at 15 times the rate of white people.”
Put New Yorkers First
Gov. Cuomo’s bidding war has not gone unnoticed. New Yorkers are petitioning against the auction to stop outside businesses from taking resources away from people in the state. To them, people who represent New York are the ones who should be given the chance to sell cannabis, not outside groups.
New Yorkers responded and formed a campaign, called Tell Gov. Cuomo an Auction Equals No Equity, to stop the auction. The campaign states:
“We know who has the funds to play this game and it is not everyday New Yorkers. New York’s informal market is one of the most profitable and the legal adult-use market is estimated to be the same. Wealth and ownership needs to stay in New York, with the people, not auctioned off to the highest bidder!”
With enough signatures, this campaign hopes to get Cuomo’s attention to get him to listen to what New Yorkers need.
What Else is Cuomo Offering?
Cuomo’s new proposal makes it near impossible for the Black and Latinx New Yorkers affected by federal law to license cannabis. There are other things however, that can build the communities towards a safer future.
The Gov. has addressed the way legalization can help the state, saying that:
“We know that you cannot overcome a problem without first admitting there is one. Our comprehensive approach to legalizing and regulating the adult-use cannabis market provides the opportunity to generate much-needed revenue, but it also enables us to directly support the communities most impacted by the war on drugs by creating equity and jobs at every level, in every community in our great state.”
Cannabis legalization in New York is predicted to create 60,000 jobs, according to Cuomo’s office. As part of the job growth, state officials will allow delivery services giving parts of New York an economic boost and a workforce advantage, while allowing even more revenue to be invested into low-income communities
Is This What New Yorkers Want?
While Gov. Cuomo works towards a better legalization plan with each proposal, his vision is still not in line with Democratic state legislatures.
Many New York lawmakers still believe Cuomo’s plans focus less on restorative justice and more on speedy income. As a result, some lawmakers have introduced a new bill.
The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) is the bill directly challenging Gov. Cuomo’s proposal. The MRTA prioritizes opportunity over wealth, giving people of color a better chance to join the new cannabis-led economy. It aims to invest 50% of all tax revenue into communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs while eliminating all criminal cannabis offenses.
In a virtual Lobby Day to urge Cuomo to push the MRTA instead of his current legalization plan, lead sponsor Majority Leader democrat Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes says that, “Unfortunately, there are a number of people, because of the pandemic and its impact on our economy, who want to couch this as an issue about raising revenue. It’s about a lot more than that.”
New York Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa adds that, “We are here because the criminal justice system has, for too long, jeopardized the lives of black and brown men and women in our state. Now is the time to make sure we are passing the right bill.”
Buffalo News notes that Peoples-Stokes is nearing a deal to get her legalization efforts passed in the coming weeks.
Whether or not Cuomo can get his proposal passed remains to be seen. His recent sexual assault scandal could likely create push back and prevent his legalziation efforts from seeing any progress. After all, the New York State Assembly is beginning to investigate the claims made against him, so anything can happen with legalization.
New Yorkers want a cannabis economy that rights the wrongs of New York’s past. Cuomo’s future plans for the plant don’t seem motivated enough to do as much as possible for those affected by cannabis prohibition.