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New York rolls out a social-justice oriented weed legalization program

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In 2021, New York legalized recreational marijuana use for adults. And according to the state, one of the major goals of legalization was to right some past wrongs. You see, marijuana is the most widely used drug that is still illegal in the U.S. Users span racial and socioeconomic groups pretty evenly, but Black and brown people are far more likely to be arrested for weed-related offenses. Well, the legalization rollout in New York has been, in the words of Governor Kathy Hochul, a disaster. Jia Tolentino looked into it for The New Yorker and joins us now. Welcome.

JIA TOLENTINO: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: Thank you for being with us. So part of New York's goal was to respond to the disproportionate impact that the war on drugs has had on Black and brown communities. You call this whole program, if you will, quote, "legal weed as reparations." Can you just briefly explain - how did New York State plan to do that?

TOLENTINO: New York's very specific policy decision around marijuana in 2021 has to be put in the context of what other states have done, which is mostly fail dramatically at establishing a legal weed industry that reflected the demographics of the illegal one. You know, many of them barred people with marijuana convictions from getting licensed in the legal industry. Many of them didn't take any measures to expunge marijuana convictions. And so, across the United States, in the increasing number of states that have legal adult-use marijuana, you mostly have an industry full of white venture capitalists, you know, making a lot of money off of, as you were saying, this drug that is commonly used as a cudgel against poor communities, Black and brown communities.

CHANG: Right.

TOLENTINO: And so New York decided to try to go much further than any of those states ever had. The 2021 law - it's already expunged 100,000-plus marijuana convictions. It allocates 40% of all tax revenues from the sale of weed to community initiatives in places that were heavily and disproportionately policed over marijuana. And, most crucially, it set out this goal of allocating half of all licenses across the industry to, you know, so-called social and economic equity applicants.

And then the legal weed as reparations part - that real flagship program was something called CARD, which gave out the first several hundred dispensary licenses to people who had or whose family members had a marijuana conviction.

CHANG: Right. And were people with marijuana-related convictions able to get those first licenses to legally sell marijuana? What was the success rate there?

TOLENTINO: As Kathy Hochul said, it has been rocky. But the context for this also is that legal weed is an incredibly expensive and difficult industry to enter because it remains federally illegal.

CHANG: It's a process you found can cost millions of dollars to set up a weed shop - a legal weed shop.

TOLENTINO: Because there's all sorts of compliance and regulations that the unregulated illegal trade you don't have to contend with - and so people got licenses. Have they been able to open shops? - not so much, not so quickly. They're coming, but what has swept the city in the meantime, as anyone who lives here knows, are these illegal weed bodegas, you know, on every block. But the reason why it's taken so much time for the recipients of this CARD license to get their shops open is because New York planned to put together this kind of unprecedented package that would allow these people to leapfrog those barriers to entry that would give them state-approved, renovated dispensary sites and to give them low-interest loans from a state fund and to really...

CHANG: Right. You're talking about a $200 million loan fund that was supposed to help businesses get that startup capital that they need.

TOLENTINO: Right.

CHANG: Did you get the sense that people actually benefited from that fund?

TOLENTINO: There were a few people who were able to get state money and state dispensary sites to open their stores like the program had originally promised. For the vast majority of other people, I think it has been difficult or impossible for one reason or another. There was a lot of trouble in putting together the fund because 150 million of that money had to come from private investors who wanted a certain rate of return on their investment. And, you know, all of it basically pointed to what I saw as the fundamental contradiction, which is, can social justice and capitalism work hand-in-hand?

CHANG: Right.

TOLENTINO: And, you know, jury's out. I tend to say no.

CHANG: Jury's still out. Well, when we look at the overall numbers, like, in terms of the ownership of these stores, according to the governor's office, 0.2% of dispensaries in the U.S. are Black-owned. Other estimates put that number just under 2%. But either way, Governor Hochul says, in New York, more than 20% are majority-Black owned. I mean, just given those percentages, wherever they're landing right now, would you characterize the New York program as a failure?

TOLENTINO: I think that statistic points to exactly why this program is not a failure. It has been exceedingly bumpy. The OCM's desire...

CHANG: OCM - that's the Office of Cannabis Management in New York.

TOLENTINO: Right. The OCM's desire to not recriminalize marijuana has resulted in illegal stores choking the city and posing an enormous challenge to the legal industry. That's for sure. But despite all of the failures and missteps and complications, New York has tried to go farther than any state ever has in terms of equity in legal marijuana, and it has already. I think we will see that, even in this kind of unique hothouse environment, New York's legal industry will look different than it does in other states.

CHANG: Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker. Her new article is out now. It's called "Legal Weed Was Going To Be A Revolution. What Happened?" Thank you very much for joining us.

TOLENTINO: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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