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Kirsten Gillibrand Explains Cannabis Privilege and We’re Here for It

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is a Democratic presidential candidate scrambling to climb into a top-five ranking in a field that feels 37,000 candidates deep. Last week she found herself working a room in Youngstown, Ohio, the kind of blue-collar town whose white voters famously turned to Trump in 2016.

Pressed to explain white privilege in a struggling Ohio town, Gillibrand turned to the clearest illustration: cannabis arrests.

One of those voters, a white woman, put it to her straight: We’ve been hit hard by job losses and opioid addiction here. We hear all about this so-called “white privilege,” and we just aren’t seeing it. What do you have to say about that?

Instead of mumbling a line about feeling the woman’s pain, Gillibrand looked her in the eye and delivered. The video is everything:

All Suffering Is Suffering

“I understand families in this community are suffering deeply,” she said. “It is devastating when you’ve lost your job, you’ve lost your ability to provide for your kids, that when you’ve put 20 to 30 years into a company that suddenly doesn’t care about you, won’t call you back, or gives you a day to move. That is not acceptable and not OK. No one in that circumstance feels privileged on any level. But that’s not what that conversation is about.”

“What is it about?” the woman demanded.

“That conversation is about a community that’s been left behind for generations because of the color of their skin,” Gillibrand said. Job discrimination, housing discrimination, home loan denials—all these things actually happened. And still happen. “So institutional racism is real,” she said. “It doesn’t take away your pain and your suffering. It’s just a different issue.”

“Your suffering is just as important as a black or brown person’s suffering,” Gillibrand said, but far more transformational efforts are needed to dismantle the societal framework of racism.

But Your Son Doesn’t Suffer This

Then she made a critical pivot. To illustrate the difference between the experience of a white person and a person of color in Youngstown, Gillibrand turned to one of the clearest examples of racial disparity: cannabis enforcement.

“If your son is 15 years old and smokes pot. He smokes just as much as the black boy in his neighborhood and the Latino boy in his neighborhood, but that black or Latino boy is four times more likely to be arrested.” Then he faces $500 bail, possible loss of a job, and a criminal record. “Your son will not likely have to deal with that,” Gillibrand said, “because he is white.”

Wisconsin Cannabis Arrests Hit Black Residents Hardest

“So when someone says ‘white privilege,’ that is all they’re talking about. It means that his whiteness means that a police officer might give him a second chance. It might mean that he doesn’t get incarcerated because he just smoke a joint with his girlfriend.”

Gillibrand recently became one of the only presidential candidates to put forth an actual plan to end federal cannabis prohibition. Her senate colleague and presidential nomination rival, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), has also put forth a detailed proposal in his Marijuana Justice Act. Gillibrand, Booker, and a host of other aspirants are scheduled to appear in the next round of Democratic presidential primary debates on Tuesday, July 30, and Wednesday, July 31.

Bruce Barcott's Bio Image
Bruce Barcott

Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

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