Illustration for article titled New York Legalizes Weed in Crackdown on the Racist Cop Epidemic

Photo: Justin Heiman (Getty Images)

Governor Cuomo has just legalized recreational weed in New York.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), passed last night with a 100-49 vote by the New York State Assembly. It allows people over 21 to possess, display, purchase, obtain, or transport up to three ounces of cannabis and cultivate up to six plants at home, and residents will be allowed to sell up to three ounces with a license. More importantly, courts are ordered to dismiss and expunge previously illegal marijuana-related convictions, and police are no longer allowed to use possession of small amounts of marijuana to make arrests. Marijuana will have a 13 percent sales tax, and 45 percent of most of the revenue which will reinvest in communities abused by drug policing. That includes things like grants for nonprofits, nutrition programs, housing, substance abuse treatment, childcare, and adult education, among numerous initiatives.

By one estimate, the industry could generate $4.2 billion annually. Governor Cuomo’s office has said that tax revenues could eventually amount to $300 million.

As many pointed out to NPR, other states’ legalization efforts have not only excluded low-income communities from the new costly high-end market but intensified discriminatory arrests against those still forced to sell illegally under federal law.

“The legal market companies didn’t like the fact that the black market is still around,” Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, an economics professor specializing in marijuana policy, told NPR. “So targeted enforcement began happening against the same minorities.”

Even after New York relaxed penalties for possession in 1977 and again decriminalized possession of up to two ounces of marijuana in 2019 (preserving “violations”), the NYPD has continued to weaponize possession against people of color. In recent years, cops punched a man in the head, slammed one to the ground and stomped him, and allegedly knocked a teen’s teeth out. Two detectives pled guilty to sexually assaulting a woman in the back of a police van after she was arrested for marijuana possession. Police data analyzed by the Legal Aid Society shows that Black and Latinx people were subject to 94 percent of all low-level marijuana arrests in 2020.

The bill cuts down on cops’ excuses to terrorize innocent people. “The odor of burnt cannabis shall not provide probable cause to search any area of a vehicle that is not readily accessible to the driver and reasonably likely to contain evidence relevant to the driver’s condition,” it says. It harkens back to cases such as the Staten Island cops who repeatedly pulled people over for small traffic violations, claimed to smell weed, and were caught on bodycam footage evidently planting marijuana in the car. In at least one case, their victim was sent to the hospital bleeding.

Advocates for reform are lauding the act as a hard-fought overhaul. In a statement today, NYCLU senior policy counsel Michael Sisitzky said that dismantling systemic racism “begins with how we legalize marijuana.” He added: “At long last, the bill passed by the legislature will ensure a diverse and inclusive legal marijuana industry and reinvest in communities of color that have been devastated by the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and a legacy of disproportionate arrests for drug possession.”

Kassandra Frederique, the Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, called MRTA a “truly reimaginitive” measure that makes New York a “beacon of hope.”

It may take a year until we can buy legally, but this is great.

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