Cannabis Legalization in Harlem: Why We Need an Alternative Three-Strikes Plan for Restorative Justice

After a decades-long fight, cannabis is finally legal in New York State! That this specific legislation passed in New York — the “marijuana arrest capital of the world” — is nothing less than an incredible achievement. Some of the hard-won hallmarks of the new law — known as the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) — are provisions for (1) clearing the records of people previously convicted for activity that is now legal, (2) reinvesting the expected tax revenue into communities that have been most impacted by cannabis-related criminalization, and (3) setting up a system of racial equity that prioritizes Black and Brown-owned businesses and family farms.

(If you want to take quick action, please sign our petition on reinvesting cannabis tax dollars back into Harlem!)

While I’m heartened to see these overdue changes, as a Harlemite and future elected representative, I still want to address what this means for our community: both in terms of the historical legacy of racist drug policies and policing, as well as in its implementation in the months and years to come.

Historical legacy of racism & the war on drugs

Unjust drug laws have been failing New Yorkers for almost half a century. In 1973, the “Rockefeller Drug Laws” were enacted statewide as part of a “tough-on-crime” agenda, and later amplified by habitual offender (“three-strikes”) laws in the 1990s . Altogether, these laws increased the penalty for selling or possessing heroin, morphine, opium, cocaine, or cannabis. The penalties were also set high: a minimum of “15 years to life” for selling two or more ounces, or simply possessing four or more ounces. The archaic nature of this law, and many other drug-related bills, led to the arrest and detainment of more Black and Brown bodies than New York City representatives care to admit. While partial decriminalization (1977), medical cannabis legalization (2014), and now, adult-use recreational legalization (2021) have partially mitigated the effects of criminalization, for many, the damage has already been done.

As recently as last year, 94% of all NYC arrests related to the possession of cannabis were of people of color. This continues to be true even though evidence has long suggested similar rates of drug use between Black and white Americans, and even though white New Yorkers make up a larger share of the city’s population. This disproportionate and racist over-policing of Black and Brown communities is just one of many reasons why we need to defund and eventually abolish the police.

At the local level, states have opted for different rules around cannabis legalization, determining for whom (and where) it’s legal to smoke, as well as how the plant is produced, sold, and distributed. For example, Vox reports that “laws that bar the public consumption of cannabis, ban cannabis sales, and prohibit cannabis use for people under 21 still exist in several [states where it has been legalized], and people of color are still arrested on these charges more often.” As activists and community members, we have a responsibility to make sure that we “get legalization right” here in New York.

Moving forward, I have three major policy goals of my own to counter the archaic “three-strikes” laws of the past:

1. Ensuring restorative justice for individuals and communities most harmed by marijuana prohibition

On March 21, 2021, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) was passed by the New York Legislature with explicit language to “end the racially disparate impact of existing cannabis laws.” As far as I’m concerned, true justice for those formerly arrested, convicted, or incarcerated for cannabis crimes would mean: (1) automatically expunging (clearing) criminal records, (2) immediately releasing anyone currently incarcerated for activity that is now legal, and (3) repairing the harm done by decades of senseless cannabis convictions .

A plan geared towards social equity is both justifiable and necessary, but for it to truly take root, we must address the trauma incurred by years lost in prison cells, the separation of families, and the ongoing economic and psychological harm caused by criminal records (including persistent challenges with securing housing, employment, or business loans). I am deeply concerned about the slow timeline provided by MRTA, which allows courts up to 2 years to complete the process of clearing individual records (what’s otherwise known in the legal system as ‘expungement’). Other states, like Colorado, Nevada, and California, have all failed in sealing records for all those who were formerly convicted — oftentimes because they relied on problematic, case-by-case appeals. We cannot allow such an agonizing process to unravel here, and I will push for automatic expungement of non-violent, cannabis-related convictions.

Plain and simple, Restorative Justice would mean putting an end to the over-policing of Black and Brown communities targeted on the mere suspicion of drug use. There’s still much left to tackle: just outside of NYC, the town of Port Chester recently passed a bill criminalizing the use of drug paraphernalia, thereby creating additional ways to justify arrests from using a now-legal substance. These policies are clear and active demonstrations that local police and governments will continue to find ways to incarcerate Black and Brown bodies, regardless of the laws on the books.

In the coming years, I promise to hold City Council and the State Legislature responsible for the following:

Immediate reductions in drug-related arrests: A core promise of legalization has been to put an end to drug-related arrest disparities. Arrest rates matter, and it’s the only true indicator that can tell us if we’re on the right path to Restorative Justice. If we don’t see a drastic drop in arrest rates, lawmakers and police must be held accountable.

A well-orchestrated expungement process: The road to Restorative Justice may be complicated by our opponents. I fully expect to start seeing sensationalized news coverage and a push from right-wing and moderate politicians to not “let dangerous criminals off the hook” for previous arrests. We must make sure that State officials and their allies in city government stick to their promise about clearing criminal records.

2. Promoting economic justice through support for Black entrepreneurship in the emerging cannabis industry

It’s not enough to simply reduce arrests and expunge criminal records. If officials in the State Legislature, City Council, and other elected bodies are truly committed to advancing social equity, then we must also ensure economic opportunities for the people of Harlem and other communities ravaged by the drug war.

Currently, the MRTA’s social equity program is structured to set aside half of cannabis sales licenses to women and people of color — a well-intentioned step in the right direction. However, according to the Harlem Business Alliance, the provisions, as written, can perpetuate new injustices if they fail to provide opportunities for those most harmed by the drug war — particularly the formerly incarcerated and those on probation. In NYC, Black New Yorkers particularly have higher drug-related arrest rates and are historically underrepresented in programs like “minority- and women-owned business enterprises” (M/WBEs) and Affirmative Action. Unless a deliberate effort is made to ensure opportunities are directed to those most directly harmed, I fear too many current and potential business owners in Harlem will lose out.

These are not simply theoretical concerns. Other states where marijuana laws have passed — including Illinois, Massachusetts, and California — have not only failed in implementing their social equity plans, but have allowed gross injustices to unravel. In Illinois, for instance, not a single dispensary is owned by a person of color a full 15 months after decriminalization. And because of the millions in revenue promised by the legal cannabis market, it is unsurprising that a poorly managed rollout would result in numerous corruption scandals across the country, including in supposedly progressive municipalities like Los Angeles and Fall River, Massachusetts.

In New York, license-issuance is sure to be a drawn-out process, and thus, an important one to closely monitor. Improper control of licensing is the biggest mistake a state can make, and we can’t allow New York City to succumb to the same injustices.

As councilwoman, my plan for promoting Black entrepreneurship in the cannabis industry will focus on the following:

Ensuring social equity goals of the MRTA align with principles of Economic Restorative Justice: It is not enough to disburse licenses to minority- and women-owned businesses. We also need to ensure licenses are distributed in a manner that aligns with Restorative Justice: that is, prioritizing those most directly impacted. That particularly includes those who’ve been targeted by the criminal justice system. According to the Harlem Business Alliance, we could do this by restricting licenses to Restorative Justice applicants in the first few years, thereby offering a level-playing field and new opportunities to local business owners.

Providing the economic infrastructure necessary for cannabis industry entrepreneurs to flourish: Small businesses in Harlem were unduly punished in 2020, and many mom-and-pops were forced to shutter or struggle for survival amid steep losses in revenue. Much of this was preventable and it should never have happened. In accord with my 11-point plan for small businesses, I will be a fierce advocate for the supportive economic package Harlem entrepreneurs need. That includes funneling federal and state stimulus aid to new local ventures in the industry; promoting ‘Buy Black’ and ‘Buy Local’ initiatives; and stomping out incentives that would provide unfair advantages to well-resourced cannabis companies in our neighborhood (‘Big Marijuana’).

3. Securing cannabis-related tax revenues and reinvestments for Central Harlem

When it comes to making amends for the drug war, Restorative Justice can also take the form of reinvestments into the entire community, at the neighborhood level. The regulated cannabis market in NY is expected to be a multi-billion dollar industry, creating at least $400 Million in tax revenue from New York City alone. First, that tax revenue will be used to fund government agencies with responsibilities under the law, such as the new Office of Cannabis Management, the DMV, the Office of Court Administration, and the state police. After that, 40% of the remaining tax revenue will be reallocated towards communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs and past cannabis criminalization. Another 40% will go to public schools and education, and the last 20% will go to drug treatment, prevention, and education.

For too long, Harlem has gotten the short shrift when it comes to municipal funds, to say nothing of the opportunities lost to redlining, segregation, policing, and now the pandemic. Our neighborhood continues to reel from the effects of a relentless war that has torn people from their families and communities, and the only way to correct course is to have a fierce advocate in City Council who can channel those tax dollars back where they belong: here, in Central Harlem.

If state and city officials are truly committed to social equity, I will demand that that following conditions are met:

A sizeable and proportional quantity of cannabis tax revenues must be allocated to our district. In keeping with principles Economic Restorative Justice, anything less is a non-starter for the people of Harlem. Central Harlem must be prioritized in the allocation of newly generated taxes — not simply to redress past wrongs, but to create a suitable environment for future prosperity.

The advisory board adjudicating the distribution of funds must be representative of Harlem and Black and Brown communities. Beginning in June, a 13-member advisory board will be in charge of distributing these funds in accordance with the law’s mandate around social equity. The composition of this board will be important to its success, and we need to closely monitor its creation by ensuring that Harlem, and Black and Brown communities more generally, are represented. Those representing us in the board must also represent the district’s collective interests by demonstrating a desire to tackle root causes of poverty and inequality.

New York cannot follow the example set by so many other states that have dismissed and minimized the toll of drug prohibition. As we move towards a future based in green jobs, sustainable agriculture, and improved public health services, there is no reason why commercial activity and tax revenue from the cannabis industry cannot become an integral part of Harlem’s revitalization.

If you agree with me, please sign our petition to reinvest cannabis tax dollars into our neighborhood!

As we close this chapter in the drug war, Central Harlem has a golden opportunity to set an example, in New York City and across the country, by once again becoming a beacon of hope, prosperity, and justice for Black Americans.

Kristin Richardson Jordan (KRJ), Candidate for New York City Council District 9 Kristin is a poet, local activist, speaker, teacher, DSA member, Black queer woman, and third-generation Harlemite on a mission to disrupt District 9 (Central Harlem) with radical love. Started almost a year and a half before the murder of George Floyd, her Kristin for H.A.R.L.E.M. political platform includes advocacy for police accountability, abolition, affordable housing, redistribution of resources, senior care, gun control, education, and environmental justice. She is interested in making change both through her grassroots campaign and through a community-based participatory democracy once elected and has drafted policy on each of her HARLEM platform points. Find out more and get involved at KristinForHarlem.com.

Candidate for NY City Council District 9 (Central Harlem) Kristin for H.A.R.L.E.M. aka KRJ visit www.KristinForHarlem.com