Viewpoints: The time is right to legalize marijuana in New York – Buffalo News

By Dasheeda Dawson
Special to the News

After decades of prohibition and of pop cultural references, almost everyone in the nation has an opinion about cannabis. The majority of Americans on both sides of the aisle now support adult-use legalization.

I’m proud to be among the millions who support legal access to a plant that has been used to promote health and wellness for millennia. As a New Yorker, I’m thrilled at how close the state is to passing full legalization, and as an advocate, executive and medical marijuana patient, I believe the time to legalize is now.

Health and wellness brought me into the industry as a patient and an advocate. After 20 years as a student athlete, my body began breaking down. Fluid movements that were once effortless gradually became painful and labored. At 35, suffering from arthritis in multiple joints, pain and inflammation, I felt prematurely aged. Nothing helped, until my mother, who had smoked marijuana for most of her adult life, suggested that I inhale. I experienced immediate pain relief and relaxation, the first good night’s sleep in years.

Quickly becoming a convert, I learned as much as I could about how the plant has been used as a medicine. Evidence suggests that we have only begun to scratch the surface of its benefits.

When I began consuming cannabis, the patient experience left much to be desired. Medical marijuana was still in its nascent stages and cannabis users like me faced stigma and the threat of criminal prosecution. After personally experiencing improved health as an informed user, I committed myself to expanding access by rebranding cannabis. I wanted to show people that the new face of cannabis users – smart, successful and driven – is a far cry from the negative stereotypes that have become ingrained in our culture. My goal became to introduce cannabis as a legal, health and wellness consumer product. Part of my mission became to provide affordable access to all communities, particularly those hit hardest by prohibition.

Unequal enforcement

Despite having nearly identical rates of usage, African Americans and Latinos are arrested for criminal possession much more often than whites. In New York City, where I was born and raised, 86 percent of people arrested for criminal possession in 2017 were black or Latino, while 9 percent were Caucasian.

Growing up, I witnessed the disparity firsthand. I didn’t consume cannabis as a kid, but one summer during high school, as I played basketball with friends, two New York Police Department officers interrupted our game to harass and detain us, claiming that they smelled marijuana from across the court.

No one was smoking, but that didn’t stop the officers from interrogating us and patting all of us down. It was a humiliating and frightening experience for me, a straight A student and prep school basketball star, but at least I was able to walk away.

Charles, a friend from church, wasn’t as lucky. He had a couple of dime bags, each maybe a gram and far less than an ounce. At 15, Charles was thrown to the ground, handcuffed and carted away. I didn’t see Charles for weeks afterward, and while the overall impact on his life is unclear, the incident seemed to mark the beginning of a promising future derailed by an unnecessary arrest.

That one encounter shaped my fear and avoidance of cannabis, anxious that usage would lead to difficult and devastating interactions with the police. Now, the experience fuels my commitment to legitimize, to stabilize and to diversify the industry, specifically re-educating the communities most adversely affected, not just about jobs and equity but also about health and social justice.

We must protect these communities by preventing the arrests, prosecution and stigma associated with continued marijuana prohibition. That is one of the most critical reasons for fully legalizing in New York State right now: to provide new laws for towns and municipalities without the foresight or political will to end low-level possession arrests, as Mayor Byron W. Brown has done in Buffalo.

Minor possession arrests don’t just harm individuals and families, they rob entire communities of their greatest resources. Because of the painful connection to mass incarceration and inflated sentencing, legalization must remedy these past injustices.

Flora Buffalo’s commitment to social impact is what first attracted me to the project. Today, I am proud to be tasked with building out and executing the vision of founder and Buffalo native Brad Termini. I believe that our strategic approach to helping the state and city to rectify past harms and to achieve best outcomes through research, education, restoration and reinvestment will become the benchmark for good private partnership in the industry.

Issues to address

Finally, we must legalize cannabis to harness the industry’s rapid growth globally and within the underground economy here in New York. A report compiled by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer estimated the state’s potential legal cannabis market at $3.1 billion annually.

We want to be part of the solution for an undoubtedly complex set of problems that New York State must resolve: How does the state that has arrested the most individuals due to marijuana prohibition develop a fair, equitable, legalized cannabis industry from day one? How does the state with the largest underground market transition that demand to a new, legal market? Many states that have already legalized marijuana have neglected to use the law to protect their developing industry ecosystems, all but ensuring development of poorly functioning monopolies. These markets far too often have astronomical licensing fees and capital requirements but minimal community education – and all without requirements for diversity, inclusion and/or community reinvestment.

Inspired largely by the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act, a legalization bill that has been carried by Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes since 2013, I believe that if done well, marijuana legalization in New York could mean thousands of new good-paying jobs, along with opportunities for small business owners to carve out their own niches while the state prospers and uses the resulting revenue to fill budget holes and to support economic development in vulnerable communities.

In addition to tax revenue reinvested, larger cannabis corporations allowed to profit from the legal industry should also be contributing positively to the equity-building and economic development within the communities they intend to serve. The Flora Buffalo cannabis campus has committed to creating 500 to 1,000 jobs in Western New York, establishing a community impact fund and developing a cannabis business incubator program to nurture budding entrepreneurs looking to transition into the industry.

Legalizing adult-use cannabis in New York is within reach, and we must allow its potential benefits, from increased access for patients to elimination of unnecessary arrests in New York State, to fuel the urgency of the moment.

A bold commitment from our legislators now allows us to usher in a historic moment that helps rectify past harms and create brighter futures for all in the Empire State.

Dasheeda Dawson is president of Flora Buffalo.