Legalizing Marijuana is an Act of Social Justice

With successes in Washington and Colorado, the opportunity to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes has become an act of social justice, especially for communities of color.

For starters, anyone who seriously examines our nation’s prison system will see that African- Americans are incarcerated at unprecedented rates and sentenced far more harshly than other ethnic/racial groups. In a 2010 U.S. Census (including populations in all types of facilities) the Prison Policy Initiative found that the number of African- American people incarcerated per 100,000 is 1,655. Compare this alarming figure with Hispanics at 607 and Whites at 219. These statistics indicate that America’s expanding prison, probation, and parole populations are being heavily recruited from what leading slavery reparations advocate Randall Robinson calls “the millions of African-Americans bottom-mired in urban hells by the savage time-release social debilitations of American slavery.”

Furthermore, The Justice Policy Institute has tracked that 77% of the growth in intake to America’s state and federal prisons over the past 20 years was accounted for by nonviolent offenders. In fact, our nonviolent prison population, alone, is larger than the combined population of Wyoming and Alaska. Given the number of inmates who were arrested for selling pot, we might as well substitute the words  ‘dealer’ for ‘nonviolent.’

Secondly, the act of criminalizing a pervasive yet highly desirable weed almost guarantees that the most violent members of society will create and exploit a black market to distribute it. For example, the failed U.S. policy towards marijuana has resulted in the terrifying rise of international drug cartels. In 2014 Mexican drug lord Joquin El Chapo Guzman made the Forbes List of the world’s most powerful people. Guzman runs the Sinaloa Cartel, a multibillion dollar criminal organization, which supplies North America with the majority of its illegal cannabis. El Chapo is a sadist who rules over a vast empire of satellite networks, American outposts, and even foreign companies. His influence not only oppresses the lives of Mexicans living in or near the genesis of the narcotics trade, but also impacts the lives of American citizens in metropolises such as Houston, Los Angeles, Tucson, Atlanta, Chicago and many more. The brutality of El Chapo’s business deals (and homicidal narco-state dictators like him) inevitably spills over into the streets, businesses and houses of American communities, inundating vulnerable neighborhoods with grams, guns, and gangs. Rochester is no exception.

Meanwhile other parts of the nation are reaping an economic windfall from legal pot. It’s been a year since Colorado has allowed people to sell and buy marijuana legally. To date, recreational cannabis- with a 28% tax rate on sales- has brought 76 million dollars in revenue to the state. (This figure includes fees on the industry, plus pre- existing sales taxes on medical marijuana products.)

Once Colorado figures out how to better fund substance abuse centers, train police officers, and incorporate the health care industry into the cannabis marketplace, these revenues will easily surpass 100 million per year. Governments at all levels are better equipped now to maintain parks, repair infrastructure, purchase school textbooks, and meet other municipal demands that would otherwise go neglected. (Cnn.Money.Com/ColoardoDepartmentofRevenue)

So why can’t New York State and the City of Rochester capitalize on this much needed revenue? Today in Rochester hundreds of young adults -mostly men of color-will spend the majority of their day selling various quantities of weed on the Avenues, Flint St and Scio. They have entrepreneurial skills that are serving them quite well in a limited business environment; yet many of them will be arrested at some point in their lives. Some of them will be sentenced to prison for many years- a tragic, all too familiar story that has been referred to as the “school to street to prison pipeline.”

But this script does not need to end so predictably. Rather than throw away a talented pool of growers, retailers, marketers, sale persons, and researchers, I believe that we should move in the enlightened direction of our western neighbors and legalize marijuana for the economic and social benefit of our most challenged neighborhoods. Not only will this new policy liberate thousands of innocent, hardworking African- American and Hispanic men from prison, it will simultaneously boost economic opportunity where it is most needed. With adequate training in commerce and a complete legitimization of the product, many would be prisoners could find ways to excel in a new and dynamic marketplace.

Even better, legalizing marijuana will effectively channel influence away from organized crime syndicates such as the vicious Sinaloa cartel and return it to the people who live and work in the neighborhoods most threatened by this type of fear and intimidation.

The time to legalize recreational pot in New York State has come. What are we waiting for?