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New York’s marijuana law can finally reverse the drug war’s harm

That sort of gap wouldn’t fly with Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the New York Assembly’s majority leader, who happens to be a Black woman. “I haven’t seen anyone do it correctly,” she told The Times in 2019 of other states’ legalization efforts.

“They thought we were going to trust that at the end of the day, these communities would be invested in. But that’s not something I want to trust,” she said. “If it’s not required in the statute, then it won’t happen.”

Hence the stop-and-start efforts over the years in Albany. Peoples-Stokes won out big in the end — the final bill as signed looks much more like her original vision than Cuomo’s, and it does way more than just make it legal to possess marijuana in the state.

“For years, Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Senator Liz Krueger have remained firm in their focus on legalization that would help communities most affected by cannabis prohibition and the war on drugs,” Cannabis Wire co-founder Alyson Martin, an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School, told me in an email about the long effort to get a bill over the line. “As a result, New York now has one of the most equity-focused cannabis laws in the country, and goes farther than most other states when it comes to justice and community reinvestment.”

That includes provisions that: bar landlords and businesses from discriminating against applicants who smoke weed, set a goal of having half of marijuana business licenses go to people from “communities disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of cannabis prohibition” and devote 40 percent of tax revenue left over from running the program to a community reinvestment fund. That’s a big step up from Evanston, Illinois’ use of marijuana tax revenue to fund a local reparations program.

Martin also pointed to the stipulations that allow for public consumption, “which ensure that people who don’t own property or who live in public housing have somewhere to legally consume,” as one of the best compromises that Cuomo was forced to accept. (Cuomo, let’s not forget, is in the middle of a fight for his political life at the moment, weakening his negotiating hand.)

Fifty years after the war on drugs first kicked off, state after state has laid down its arms in recognition of the futility of keeping up the fight.

And, arguably most importantly, the new law expunges thousands of court records for people convicted of crimes that are no longer crimes. “We have literally destroyed the lives of multiple thousands of people,” Peoples-Stokes told NBC New York. “That’s what’s good about this legislation. … We’re going to turn around the lives of some of those people and help them to be able to take care of themselves, their families and their communities.”

Martin wrote to me, “Overall, while it’s taken years of failed negotiations to get to this point, what’s resulted is a far more equitable version of legalization in New York than previously thought possible.”

It will still be a while before a dispensary opens up next to the bodega on my block — at least 18 months, Peoples-Stokes has estimated. In the meantime, there’s still work to be done. Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, as the White House has recently reminded us; the House seems ready to change that even if the Senate isn’t.

Fifty years after the war on drugs began, state after state has laid down its arms in recognition of the futility of keeping up the fight. In joining the throng, New York, in effect, has chosen to seek not just peace but also justice for those caught in the crossfire. The rest of the country should join the trend New York has kicked off.

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