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Racist Marijuana Policies Must End

George Payne

Op/Ed by George Payne –

Whether you choose to smoke pot or not, the war against marijuana in Rochester has been an unmitigated disaster. A series of recent studies have revealed just how devastating it has been for people of color in our community.

In Monroe County, from 2012-2016, there were 1,811 total marijuana offenses. 373 were white. 1,241 were black. That’s 68% of all arrests weighted against people of color. In Rochester, the total number of pot related arrests was 1,483. 157 of those were white people. 1,164 were black. That’s 78% of all arrests weighted against blacks. These stats come from the Division of Criminal Justice Services, which has concluded: African- Americans make up 8 in 10 city pot arrests. This situation is both unacceptable and untenable.
Perhaps the Partnership for Public Good in Buffalo and Erie County has encapsulated the social justice aspect of this crisis the best. They have stated: “For communities of color, marijuana prohibition has justified an invasive police presence that damages citizen’s relationships with law enforcement. And it brings a violent, underground economy into their neighborhood, that cannot be governed by rule of law or regulated as an industry. For immigrant communities, arrests for marijuana possession can lead to deportation. This has happened on a large scale; simple marijuana possession was the fourth most common cause of deportation for any offense in 2013. For young people, the stakes of a marijuana arrest are particularly high, due to the long term costs of early involvement in the criminal justice system.”

Considering that study after study has shown blacks and whites to purchase, consume, and sell pot at the same rate, why are blacks arrested at such disproportional rates? The only explanation seems to be prejudicial and racial profiling. In the words of author Michelle Alexander, “We arrest these kids at young ages, saddle them with criminal records, throw them in cages, and then release them into a parallel social universe in which the very civil and human rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights movement no longer apply to them for the rest of their lives…They can be discriminated against [when it comes to] employment, housing, access to education, public benefits. They’re locked into a permanent second-class status for life. And we’ve done this in precisely the communities that were most in need of our support.”

Setting aside the grotesque fact that African- Americans are nearly four times more likely than white individuals to be arrested for marijuana possession, as Alexander alludes to, the amount of money to be made from legal pot sales can be reinvested in communities hardest hit by the failed War on Drugs. A recent study conducted by the New York Department of Health found that if marijuana was sold between $297 to $374 per ounce, it could generate between $248 million and $678 million in tax revenue for the state. A different study released by the New York City comptroller’s office pegged the state’s marijuana market at $3.1 billion, with tax revenues yielding about $1.3 billion annual at the state and city levels. That’s a lot of money that can be redirected towards underfunded schools, after school programs, job training, public health, and neighborhood revitalization.

With all of that said, Mayor Warren, what else do you need to know? The time to push for legalization is now. Decriminalization alone won’t stop the illegal drug trade. And we all know that black and brown people in Rochester are being decimated by the status quo. Something needs to change. When it comes to the social justice imperative of marijuana legalization, what side will you stand on? Who will you stand for?


George Cassidy Payne is an independent writer, social justice activist, and adjunct professor of philosophy at SUNY. He lives and works in Rochester, NY. George’s letters and essays have been featured in a wide range of domestic and foreign outlets including The Toronto Star, The Havana Times, The South China Morning Post, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Buffalo News, and the Albany Times Union. Locally, George is a frequent contributor to Rochester indymedia, City Newspaper, the Minority Reporter, and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

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