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What Marijuana Legalization Means For Those Who Have Been Hurt By The War On Drugs

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Lawmakers in New York could vote as early as today to legalize recreational use of marijuana. More than a dozen states have already taken that step. Backers of New York's measure say it will help heal communities of color who've been damaged by the war on drugs. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: For decades, neighborhoods in the city of Buffalo, N.Y., have been ravaged by what Crystal Peoples-Stokes describes as racially biased drug arrests.

CRYSTAL PEOPLES-STOKES: It's been horrible.

MANN: Peoples-Stokes is a Black woman who represents part of Buffalo in New York's State Assembly. We spoke as she was driving to Albany, poised to finally pass marijuana legalization she's championed for years. She says it will keep a lot of people in her community out of prison.

PEOPLES-STOKES: You arrest a father who has two children. Now those children don't have their father. Now you have a felony record. It's very difficult to get access to federal dollars to go to school. It's very difficult to get a job.

MANN: One study found 94% of pot arrests made last year by New York City's police department targeted people of color. Peoples-Stokes' measure would stop most of those arrests and would expunge criminal records for tens of thousands of New Yorkers with past pot convictions.

PEOPLES-STOKES: I think it's transformative.

MANN: This measure also commits to investing 40% of New York's marijuana tax revenue in neighborhoods harmed by high rates of drug arrests. Experts say pot legalization is happening in New York at a moment when the country's laws are deeply fractured. Marijuana is a booming legal business in more and more states. But selling or possessing even small amounts of cannabis remains a federal crime, and it's still illegal under the laws of most states. Ezekiel Edwards is with the American Civil Liberties Union.

EZEKIEL EDWARDS: There is still what we would call a war on marijuana in many places disproportionately harming communities of color.

MANN: Edwards says Black and brown people are still three times more likely to be arrested for pot possession compared with whites. As legalization moves forward, meanwhile, another fault line has developed. Where marijuana sales have gone legit, people of color who were part of the industry are often left out.

ANDREW FREEDMAN: It has been really bumpy.

MANN: Andrew Freedman was Colorado's pot czar for three years and then worked as a consultant for other states looking at legalization. He says the barriers to entry for people of color, even those who've sold pot for years, are daunting.

FREEDMAN: First of all, a lot of people want into this industry, so there's a lot of competition. Second, it's an expensive industry because there's so many regulations, and it can be expensive to operate.

MANN: Experts say in states where pot's now legit, these hurdles have forced many people of color to continue dealing illegally. A black market for marijuana winds up operating side by side with the legal one, which means Black and brown dealers still face the threat of arrest and prosecution. Supporters say New York's legalization measure was written specifically to avoid this kind of inequity. Melissa Moore's with a group called the Drug Policy Alliance.

MELISSA MOORE: I think it's just a real game-changer and sets a new model around what legalization should look like in this country.

MANN: She points out New York's measure includes investment capital upfront to help people of color transition into the legal pot business. People can also apply for so-called social equity licenses reserved for those who can show their business would benefit people hurt by past drug policies. There's a lot at stake. State officials predict New York's pot industry will eventually create tens of thousands of jobs with more than $350 million a year in tax revenue. Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the assemblywoman from Buffalo, says this time, people of color will be part of the boom.

PEOPLES-STOKES: It's our plan to make sure that happens, and we've put all the guardrails in place to support that.

MANN: New York's pot legalization measure also commits 20% of new tax revenue to pay for health care for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.

Brian Mann, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.