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New York Mayor Comes Out Strong for Legalization With Equity

Published on December 20, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio speaks during a news conference announcing a proposed ordinance to provide low income residents with access to free legal representation in landlord-tenant disputes, Tuesday, May 1, 2018, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Three days after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo listed cannabis legalization as a top priority for 2019, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his own official support for the end of prohibition.

'Legalization done the right way will marry an opportunity with justice.'

While some were expecting a tepid endorsement, de Blasio this morning came out fiery, blasting the harms of the drug war and demanding that New York craft laws and regulations that don’t merely hand over the industry to large corporate interests.

The mayor also announced the formation of a task force to chart the best way for New York City to shape a fair and positive system of cannabis regulation.

De Blasio was joined by New York City First Lady Chirlane Irene McCray and a panel of politicians and policy shapers at the Alianza Dominicana Cultural Center on 166th Street.

When asked why the mayor’s announcement took place in the Bronx, rather than downtown at City Hall, a woman in the audience said, “This is where it matters more.”

The mayor called cannabis legalization “an issue of tremendous importance.”

Joined by Other Policy Makers

New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator Luis Sepúlveda, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Dr. Herminia Palacio and Washington Heights and Inwood Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez (D-10), were also part of the panel.

“As I talked it through with Chirlane,” de Blasio said, “it has helped me see what change and justice looks like. The time has come to rewrite the rules; to repair the lives of those who have been treated unjustly. In that spirit I announce my support for the legalization of marijuana. We are talking about a change that must happen the right away.”

“We have one chance to get legalization right,” he continued. “Unlike so many other things we have dealt with, we are at the starting line. If we just legalize and don’t deal with underlying issues, we will look back on lost opportunity. Legalization done the right way will marry an opportunity with justice. We have a chance to create a brand-new industry that will lift New Yorkers and choke off corporate America in the process. We will not let them get their greedy hands on this industry.”

No Love for Big Corporations

The mayor stated that legalization is at a crossroads: Either corporate cannabis will take control, or the will of the people will win the day.

New York's cannabis laws must make sure 'those with the most money and power cannot grab up the licenses.'

The mayor then declared war on his trifecta of evil: Big Pharma, Big Tobacco, and Big Oil.

“We know what happens when the corporate sector runs the show. Big Tobacco flourished as an industry after World War Two. They knew their product was deadly,  but they systematically pushed them towards kids. Untold lives were lost. Big Oil has known for decades the harmful effects of climate change; but, suppressed the knowledge. Big Pharma sold opioids as safe and un-addictive and created a deadly wave of overdoses in this country,” the mayor said.

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Repair Past Damage

People who suffered from the war on drugs, he said, must benefit economically from legalization.

“We can’t let the corporate sector dominate this debate, and lord knows they would love to,” the mayor declared. “The building blocks are to keep corporate America out, so those with the most money and power cannot grab up the licenses. We are starting from scratch. Let’s exclude corporate American from this equation. We know where the harm was done. We know which communities were hurt the most, where people were hurt. People lost years of their lives over minor offenses, let’s give them back an opportunity.”

“Let’s be clear, and I want to be blunt about this,” the mayor said, “The economy is rigged. The laws and tax code are written to benefit the powerful few and have caused many people to suffer – profound suffering in communities of color. Low-income people bore the brunt of the suffering. This administration came to write these wrongs. Now the state of New York has the chance to write the laws the right way.”

Expunge Cannabis Convictions

De Blasio’s call for automatically expungement of past low-level marijuana convictions was met with appreciative applause. He vowed to give New Yorkers a clean slate and a fair future.

“Let’s slam the door on big marijuana and open the door for opportunity for everyday New Yorkers,” de Blasio said. “The majority of the licenses must go to those whose lives were damaged by illegal marijuana. We know where to go geographically to find the people who bore the brunt to give them opportunities. Let use the tax revenue and fees to fund education.”

“As we go forward, we have to be brave about this. Powerful forces will try to bend the law in their direction.”

Big Pharma Not a Model

De Blasio credited his wife, Chirlane McCray, with pointing out to him that if corporate America dominates legal cannabis in New York, the state’s leaders will have done New Yorkers a horrible disservice. New York can’t afford to repeat the lessons of big tobacco and big pharma, he said.

Speaking for herself, McCray addressed those who oppose legalization and think it is wrong: “Wrong is more than eleven thousand alcohol-related ER visits,” she said. “Wrong is losing four New Yorkers per day to opioid deaths due to corporate greed. I know from my own experience that marijuana can be habit-forming. With legalization comes the opportunity to educate. Thrive NYC is taking on the stigma of mental illness.”

Local DAs Lining Up in Support

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance said that treating marijuana as an illegal substance has provided New Yorkers with neither greater public safety nor greater fairness. He pointed out that legalizing in other states has not resulted in increased criminal conduct. Additionally, the DA’s office has changed its policies on the prosecution of marijuana. “We are adopting a policy of expungement.”

“If marijuana is legalized, smoking in public may no longer be criminal conduct,” Vance said. “It will no longer be a basis for an arrest. As we see the dangers of fentanyl, we are far safer to have a regulated marijuana industry as opposed to black market drugs.”

Change Needed Now

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer concurred with Vance.

“Admiral Grace Hopper said, ‘The most dangerous words in the English language are ‘we’ve always done it this way.’” The war on drugs has not worked for decades. The of people arrested for marijuana is over 650,000. Public health concerns will be addressed. Community boards must have a say in where retail and consumption will be allowed. It is time for us to stop thinking about what we have always done and how we can lead.

Brewer made a point of “thanking the activists whom we should have listened to sooner,” including New York state Sen. Liz Krueger and State Assembly member and incoming majority leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes.

Bronx DA Darcel Clark said her office dismissed 160,000 warrants for quality of life crimes last year, including marijuana possession.

“We have dismissed and declined to prosecute many such cases,” Clark said. She suggested providing a uniform approach to expunging cannabis convictions, out of a sense of fairness to communities of color, such as her borough, the Bronx.

Reinvesting in fighting addiction and mental health programs must be a priority, said Dr. Hermania Palacio, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services. “Unnecessary incarceration has public health consequences,” he said. “When you are taking people who ought not to be in jail, you are impacting whole families, whole communities. These are public health issues.”

Who Here Has Consumed Cannabis?

The senator, mayor and borough president Brewer all raised their hands, among other panelists, when asked if they had consumed cannabis in the past.

The mayor insisted that cannabis is different from other drugs. He said that his father was addicted to alcohol and cigarettes, which ultimately killed him. His dad losing half a leg fighting in World War was hard enough for him to deal with; however, losing him to addiction was even harder. “It was extraordinarily painful for my family to watch. You can’t take addiction lightly. But again, marijuana is different,” said the mayor.

“Of all the things we are discussing, alcohol is the least regulated but possibly the most destructive. Big Tobacco victimized my father. Some people are more vulnerable to addiction than others. I can tell you over my dead body will big corporate marijuana do that to New Yorkers.”

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Sara Brittany Somerset
Sara Brittany Somerset
New York-based reporter and photographer Sara Brittany Somerset has covered cannabis culture for 15 years. She has been the U.N. Bureau Chief for High Times, and occasionally works from remote places like Timbuktu.
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