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When New York Legalizes Recreational Pot, Activists Say State Should Pay Reparations

ALBANY, NY (WSKG) - People who support legalizing recreational marijuana for adults in New York say 2019 may be the year that it happens. At a conference to explore the best way to craft legislation, participants also said it needs to include reparative justice for communities most adversely affected by the decades-long marijuana prohibition in New York.

Kassandra Frederique is the New York state director at the Drug Policy Alliance, which sponsored the conference held Wednesday in downtown Albany. She said if the state does legalize recreational marijuana for New Yorkers older than 21, there must be an effort to right the wrongs created by the prohibition of the drug, which adversely affected African-American and Latino communities.

"New Yorkers lost so much with marijuana prohibition," Frederique said. "People lost custody of their children, they got deported, they lost their housing, they lost their jobs, they walked around with records."

Frederique supports a bill sponsored by Democrats in the Senate and Assembly, who will be in the majority in both houses come January. It directs 50 percent of any revenues raised from taxing legal marijuana sales to a Community Grant Reinvestment Fund. It would finance things like job training, after-school activities and re-entry programs for people coming out of prison.

"We need to look at the places that have had the most marijuana arrests, the places most impacted by the Rockefeller drug laws, the places most impacted by over-policing in communities," Frederique said. "And those communities need to decide what is best for them."

Twenty-five percent of the revenues raised would go to schools, under the bill’s provisions, and 25 percent would go to drug treatment programs to reduce opioid addiction.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo will introduce a bill in January that would set up a system to grow, produce and sell marijuana to adults in New York. Assembly sponsor Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who represents portions of Buffalo and who spoke at the conference, said it’s "critical" that any final measure include the community grant fund. She said it could even cut down on the cost of government.

"For one, you’re not incarcerating people for nonviolent crimes, which means you are using less of your jail systems," said Peoples-Stokes.

She also said the costs of family services could be less.

"Foster care and adoption and all of those things that families need when family members aren’t there to take care of them," she said.

Peoples-Stokes said she also wants to avoid what she called "mistakes" made in setting up and implementing the state’s limited medical marijuana program.

Assemblyman John McDonald, the only pharmacist in the Legislature, runs a family-owned drug store in Cohoes, near Albany. He said he has some questions and concerns about legalizing marijuana that he would like answered before he votes on a bill.

"You will not find me an early champion of the legalized marijuana market," said McDonald, who added that he grew up in the 1960s and was exposed to the unregulated market for the drug and all of its associated ills. "But as a pharmacist, I know that marijuana does help ease anxiety, which can be a contributor to pain and other disease states."

He said he worries about increased incidences of people driving while under the influence of the drug. And, he pointed out, marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

Thirty-two other states and the District of Columbia already have some form of legalized medicinal or recreational marijuana programs.

Peoples-Stokes say while it’s not a "done deal," legal marijuana for adults in New York is no longer a matter of "if" but "when."