In 2019, the word "cannabis" evokes things like wellness branding, licensed dispensaries, lobbyists, and criminal justice reformers. All of these were represented at the NYC Cannabis Parade and Rally in Manhattan Saturday, which culminated in a lineup of bands, speakers and booths in Union Square. But so too were the emblems of marijuana cultures past, all on display side by side like a retrospective in a museum: The reggae band singing about Mary Jane, the guy in a Biggie shirt posing with a blunt while his friend snapped a picture, the aging activists who had embraced being on the fringes of society when they started calling for legalization in the ‘70s.
As the state legislature considers the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act—the last hope for cannabis legalization this year since it was left out of the state budget—the Cannabis Parade serves as a reminder of how far the movement has come.
On Saturday, New Yorkers of varying levels of political engagement brazenly smoked pot in public and called for it to be legal, as they did at the 1973 Washington Square Park smoke-in that kicked off the annual tradition. But people didn’t just gather to toke in plain sight, an act that feels more like a tribute to the roots of the legalization movement than representative of where it’s at today. Over the event’s booming sound system, they also demanded that legalization in New York include various forms of reparations for the harms prohibition has visited upon communities of color—a social justice position that is becoming increasingly mainstream.
In an impassioned speech at the rally, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams openly admitted that he had sold “a little bit of bud” when he was younger. “If I was caught I might not have been an elected official,” said Williams. “I might not have been able to get a job.”
Williams added that a legal industry in New York must be set up to benefit those who were criminalized for smoking or selling weed in the past, echoing the sentiments of activists who spoke at the event.
“Nobody should make money off marijuana until the communities that have been ravaged by the over-policing and criminalization of it make money,” said Williams. “No one should make money off of marijuana until black and brown communities have access to sell the thing that will be legal that they were arrested for, that they couldn’t get jobs for, that they couldn’t get student loans for.”
Even Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was against marijuana legalization until early 2018, has embraced the idea that legalization is at least partly about social justice. But what that looks like in legislative language is still up for debate, and it’s currently not looking good for legalization advocates.
At the beginning of 2019, Cuomo proposed automatically sealing criminal records for marijuana offenses that are no longer crimes, creating multiple tiers of licensing to lower the barrier to entry to the industry for small businesses, and implementing taxes that he said would eventually generate an estimated $300 million in annual revenue. But the state’s Drug Policy Alliance called for more specific language ensuring that tax revenue is reinvested in communities impacted by criminalization and creating an equity program that would make capital and support available to small businesses and farmers. Meanwhile, the medical cannabis companies that have already invested millions in setting up businesses in New York are seeking to guarantee their place in the recreational market.
Baking social equity into a new industry that players with deep pockets and licenses in multiple states are vying to be a part of can be an uphill battle.
“I think the language in the Massachusetts legislation was by far the most progressive of any state we’ve seen so far,” said Nelson Guerrero, co-founder and executive director of the Cannabis Cultural Association, a nonprofit that helps underrepresented groups engage in the legal cannabis industry. “But if that’s our baseline, we need to do better in New York.”
In Massachusetts, where dispensaries started selling cannabis to recreational users in November 2018, early data show nearly 2,500, or 72 percent, of the state’s 3,400 active cannabis industry players are white. Just 160, or 5 percent, are black and 6 percent are Latino. (12 percent declined to answer the question, according to self-reported data gathered by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission.)
For many in attendance at the rally Saturday, the issue of equity in the industry was personal.
Emily Marie Ramos Rodriguez, 25, said the first time she met her father was in prison, where he served time after being arrested for selling cannabis when her mother was pregnant with her.
“Marijuana has negatively impacted my family’s life because we have never been able to leave the projects, we have never been able to gain economic mobility so that our family can thrive,” said Ramos Rodriguez. Even though her father has now been out of prison for 13 years, she said, he still lives with her grandmother and has struggled to get back on his feet.
Ramos Rodriguez is a cofounder of High Mi Madre, a women and femme-run marijuana cooperative that started as an illicit vegan edibles company and has since shifted its focus to cannabis education and advocacy. The cooperative is working to open a store in East Harlem that would sell CBD (a non-psychoactive cannabis extract) and other wellness goods by the end of the year; the goal is to get a license to sell other cannabis products once prohibition in New York is over.
It remains unclear if and when that will happen. State Senator Diane Savino, a pro-legalization Staten Island Democrat, told Cannabis Wire last week that a standalone bill decriminalizing marijuana “really has no shot. And that’s where we find ourselves now. If those same legislators wouldn’t vote for it today as a standalone bill, the likelihood that they’d vote for it in an election year becomes even slimmer. So, I think that the long term prospects are: You’re looking at two or three years before we get to a legal adult use market, unless something changes that I can’t see.”