Bronx borough president:

Want to legalize marijuana? It must be fair


New York inches closer and closer to outright legalizing recreational use of marijuana. But if and when that happens, Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., believes there should be some ground rules established first.

Although legalization failed in a recent attempt, New York voters did decriminalize possession, meaning someone caught with small amounts of marijuana is only subject to a violation most comparable to a parking ticket rather than a misdemeanor.

With all eyes on the 2020 legislative session in Albany — especially when it comes to negotiating next year’s budget — back in the Bronx, Diaz has outlined several recommendations he believes are essential in making legalized marijuana work in New York.

It starts, he said, with community reinvestment and licensing equity that would, among others, especially benefit people of color, whom he says have been disproportionately punished during what advocates call marijuana “prohibition.”

A new way to give back

Community reinvestment would redirect some of the profits of the cannabis industry into community-building efforts like new programs and grants, according to Melissa Moore, deputy state director for the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance.

“There are entities across the state that would work with people who were directly impacted,” she said. “People … would be able to put in applications for grants for youth programs, after-school development, re-entry services, and job training. Anything that’s responsive to the legacy of harm from prohibition.”

Last year, comptroller Scott Stringer released a report identifying neighborhoods hardest-hit by marijuana possession arrests. Those neighborhoods included Marble Hill locally, as well as Highbridge, and Concourse. Seven of the 10 neighborhoods also were among the lowest-income neighborhoods in the city.

So if recreational marijuana is legalized, those neighborhoods should be the first to benefit, Moore said.

“Those neighborhoods have been targeted and have suffered in the war on marijuana,” said Eli Northrup, a policy counsel for Bronx Defenders, a non-profit that provides criminal defense from its base in Melrose. “If and when marijuana becomes legal, we need to repair those communities.”

Diaz also wants to ensure businesses involved in the cannabis industry — which Moore called “cannabusinesses” — are able to work with banks, both to take out business-starting loans and to deposit money. Right now, banks are mostly prohibited from working within a legalized industry, because they are federally regulated, and marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.

Hillary Peckham, founder and chief executive of the family-owned New York medical marijuana company Eitan, said it’s extremely difficult for her business to work with banks.

“It’s hard to even find a bank to deposit money in,” Peckham said.

Peckham can’t disclose which banks she’s working with, and those institutions only allow her to deposit money. Cannabis companies also have to operate on a pure cash level, because credit card companies won’t work with them either.

“Some do offer it, but it’s unclear if it’s legal,” Peckham said. “The way credit transactions work, they take a percentage of the sale. In the cannabis industry, they would want 10 percent of the sale. That’s not economically feasible.”

An expensive proposition?

Customers don’t have a lot of other options, either, when it comes to help paying. Medical insurance doesn’t typically cover marijuana treatment, meaning patients are paying entirely out of pocket an average of around $200 each month.

“It can be a burden on the patient,” Peckham said. “If you don’t have cash with you, it can be a little more difficult. Especially in today’s world, where most things are done online, or in a debit or credit transaction.”

If Gov. Andrew Cuomo is successful in pushing through legalization during next year’s state budget negotiations, there will be a race opening businesses.

But doing that requires capital, Moore said, and it’s crucial New York helps communities that have been hardest-hit by the criminalization of the drug.

“In other states, people with deep pockets or existing wealth are able to dominate the market,” she said. “We want to make sure that other people are able to get in on it.”

Credit unions and smaller banks are generally better poised to take part in the cannabis industry, Moore said, as they’re more flexible and may not be subject to the same legal complications larger banks must deal with.

If nothing else, it’s most important to learn from the mistakes made elsewhere when marijuana became legal. States like Washington and California did not enforce equity properly, Northrup said, allowing big companies to take over the cannabis industry, rather than allowing communities damaged by prohibition to take part.

Diaz’s proposal also wants to remove positive marijuana tests being used as grounds to start a child neglect case against a parent. Some new mothers are tested without their knowledge in the hospital after they give birth, a practice the borough president wants to end.

“One thing about the report is that it kind of indicates that private hospitals don’t do tests,” Northrup said. “They do. They do a lot. Sometimes people with private insurance are less likely to be tested, and that adds a layer of privilege.”

It’s not just that a positive marijuana test can start the case, Northrup said. It can even prevent a child from going to stay with a family member, pushing them unnecessarily into the foster care system.

Looking back to look ahead

Perhaps the biggest impact of marijuana legalization would be tied to expunging prior offenses from criminal records. While decriminalization is expected to automatically wipe clean most low-level offenses, others still have to deal with the after effects of run-ins with law enforcement.

“Even small marijuana convictions can prevent people from getting public housing,” Northrup said. “They can be denied housing, denied jobs, and there are huge implications for immigration. People are deported for this. Expungment does not solve that.”

Under current laws, police officers can cite the presence of marijuana odor as a reason to stop and search people. That has basically been an extension of stop and frisk, Northrup said. Legalization under the bill that failed this year would have ended that practice.

“It’s a specific provision in the bill that the odor of marijuana is not a reason to stop and search someone,” he said. “That has to remain, and be specific. That can be used as a loophole to target people. It’s impossible to disprove.”

Legalizing marijuana couldn’t come fast enough, Northrup said.

“There is urgency. A lot of people have suffered no consequences. It’s not affecting them in a negative way,” he said. “But in some communities, it’s negatively affecting them.

“We can’t keep waiting for another year. People are suffering in family court, people are suffering in immigration proceedings. It’s important that this happen in 2020.”