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OPINION: How Legalization Can Benefit Disadvantaged Communities

Sarah Prentice is a policy research intern for Castetter Sustainability Group and has been researching the implications of adult-use cannabis legalization on disadvantaged communities.   Through this research, Sarah has prepared the following recommendations to best support those communities and individuals most impacted by the War on Drugs. These recommendations and views do not necessarily reflect those of Castetter Sustainability Group. 

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (hereafter referred to as the MRTA) is championed by Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal People-Stokes. The bill includes tax revenue allocation toward drug treatment programs and public education, as well as community reinvestment initiatives that will benefit those most impacted by the War on Drugs. While the MRTA’s current design offers the framework for a well-regulated industry, it requires more specificity in order to achieve its desired ‘golden standard’. The following policy suggestions will allow for this.  

Diverse OCM appointees

The MRTA calls for the creation of the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) to oversee the industry. Members will be appointed by Governor Cuomo, and are subject to legislative approval. By specifying the policy to at least 50% of OCM appointees to be non-white, non-male individuals, the MRTA will ensure a diverse OCM. A diverse OCM will utilize various perspectives, and break traditional norms of white males dominating governing bodies. Further, the OCM may benefit from partnering with minority-led organizations such as the Minority Cannabis Business Association and Minority Women Business Enterprises. These activist organizations can inform policy decisions, and ensure that minority communities are accurately represented in regulatory processes.

Mental health treatment

The MRTA calls for 25% of tax allocation to a drug treatment and public education fund. Current drug treatment programs are geared to address New York’s rampant opioid crisis by offering marijuana as a safe alternative to those in recovery. While the opioid crisis is a major issue, MRTA tax allocation also needs to include programs addressing mental health. In New York, 1 in 10 people experience mental health challenges that adversely affect their work, family, and school life. Poor mental health can lead to substance abuse; the two are inextricably linked. Initiatives specific to mental health will create educational pathways for drug counselors and rehabilitation centers to use marijuana as a resource to help individuals in need. The OCM can partner with the NYS Office of Mental Health to determine how best to move forward. Inclusion of mental health resources in policy will be more important than ever following the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has severely disrupted New Yorkers’ way of life and is projected to continue for several months. This unprecedented, stressful environment means that people’s mental well-being is more a stake than ever; the MRTA can proactively respond by including specific mental health initiatives.

Funding high-need school districts

While the MRTA allocates a portion of 25% tax revenue to public education funds, it is not specific as to which part of the public education system will be benefitted. To address this, the MRTA can draw upon data from the NYS Education Department and the Foundation Aid to specify which high-need school districts should be prioritized in receiving funding. After specific districts are identified, resources such as SMART boards, laptops, and new desks can be obtained. The NYS Foundation Aid is intended to remedy educational inequities by closing gaps between wealthy and poor communities. Yet, in 2018, two-thirds of districts were still owed Foundation Aid; of those two-thirds, 100% of predominantly black and latino districts were still owed. This reality reinforces the negative effects of the War on Drugs and reaffirms the importance of ending marijuana prohibition that has long adversely affected minority communities. Closing gaps in educational inequities with the MRTA will enable teachers to deliver higher quality and impactful lessons in classrooms that are otherwise underfunded. It will also serve to boost student morale and engagement while increasing graduation rates. 

Craft dispensary training

With the MRTA in opposition to vertical integration, the marijuana industry will likely resemble current craft beer and wine businesses. To comply with laws prohibiting under 21 consumption, employees of craft beer and wine establishments are required to complete TIPS training. The MRTA can use this as a model for craft dispensaries, by mandating that the OCM implement craft dispensary-specific training programs. This will prevent youth use, and provide craft employees the resources to cultivate a passion and breadth of knowledge for marijuana.  

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