When I think about the War on Drugs, three images always come to my mind: the narcotics-based crime drama New Jack City, the iconic “This is your brain on drugs” commercial by Partnership for a Drug-Free America, and the night I was arrested for possession of marijuana in 2008, in Wayne, New Jersey, after seeing the latest Harold & Kumar movie, Escape from Guantanamo Bay.
Some people would describe Wayne as modern-day suburbia. However, I don’t think there is anything “modern” about a town where you can see an American flag and a Confederate flag hanging side by side on the front porch. But there I was, handcuffed and scared straight—conscious of every move I made because I wanted to survive the interaction—sitting on the side of the road, preparing to go to jail because the police officer smelled marijuana. I knew my life had changed forever.
Weeks before my court date, the prosecutor told me that the charge would be possession of marijuana with a conditional discharge. But I was blindsided on that date when I learned that they planned to charge me with marijuana possession with intent to distribute it in a school zone. My only choices were serving up to three years in federal prison or paying a $1,700 fine. I had been working full-time at a True Religion clothing store and saving up for my first trip out of the country—the money I was saving for going to Paris saved me from going to federal prison.
But let’s be honest, too many Black and Latino people would not be able to afford that fine, which is why we suffer the most under America’s criminal justice system today.
After my arrest and court date, I fell into a deep depression. I was pursuing an anatomy and physiology degree at Essex County College, and my grades paid the price. I isolated myself and later dropped out of school because I had zero motivation. My PTSD and depression had a strong hold on me for years. I’d find myself having frequent panic attacks and being easily irritated when my therapist wanted me to discuss the event, all while harboring feelings of guilt and shame. During my depression, my mind would spiral, and I would contemplate the same questions over and over: What if I didn’t have the money? Why was my charge so severe if this was my first offense? And why are cops allowed to remove you from your vehicle for an odor?
The 2020 ACLU research report A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform states that from 2010 to 2018, Black people were 3.45 times more likely to be arrested than whites for drug possession in New Jersey. Across the river, in New York, the numbers decreased slightly, with Black Americans 2.6 times more likely to be arrested. Regardless of the statistics, the mental harm associated with the drug war has created generational trauma (in people who still don’t know or understand how cannabis reform can now improve their livelihoods). This was particularly true in New York, where, in 1989, during the height of the drug war, former mayor Ed Koch suggested that the state turn defunct military bases into “boot camps to treat and discipline first-time drug offenders and to punish repeat offenders.” At the time, lawmakers were looking for a cost-effective way to get drug dealers and users off the street; they wanted to cure the disease of drug use and distribution without examining how this virus impacted the minds, bodies, and souls of Black and Latino people.
Fast forward to 2022, when New Jersey and New York have both legalized adult-use marijuana after years of failed attempts and stalled efforts. In the state of New Jersey, you can now possess up to six ounces of marijuana and consume it on your private property. In New York, you can possess up to three ounces of cannabis flower, and you can participate in home grow, unlike in the Garden State. Another game-changer for both states is that you can no longer have your vehicle searched just because police smell marijuana.
In regard to social equity, there have been a lot of promises. Providing opportunities in the market for entrepreneurs and small businesses from disadvantaged communities impacted by the War on Drugs is the standard cannabis social equity tagline. The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act (Bill A21) and New Jersey Bill A1897 collectively reshape the legal landscape for cannabis in the state. The Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization dedicated to legalizing cannabis, states on its website, “Taxes from New Jersey’s legal cannabis market will largely support goals to promote social equity. The law requires 70% of cannabis revenues to provide economic assistance and services to ‘impact zones,’ which are areas of the state disproportionately affected by prior enforcement of cannabis criminalization laws.”
New York’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) establishes equity programs that will provide loans, grants, and incubator programs to ensure that people from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition, as well as small farmers, have a wide range of opportunities to participate in the newly legal industry. People with previous convictions for activities that are no longer criminalized will have their records automatically expunged by the MRTA. And New York promises that over 40% of adult-use cannabis taxes will go to the New York State Community Reinvestment Act grant fund; the money from these taxes can change the trajectory for disproportionately affected Black and Latino communities, allowing more access to mental health treatment, after school and child care services, legal services to address post-incarceration reentry, community banking, financial literacy, services to address adverse childhood experiences, and adult education.
But both New York and New Jersey’s adult-use bills fall short in places. Tosin Ajayi, founder of NYU’s CannaPolicy, which provides students with the tools and education to responsibly advance cannabis legalization, rebuild communities harmed by prohibition, and help develop the cannabis industry, is critical of the MRTA. She tells the Voice, “MRTA is the most progressive cannabis bill passed in the country; however, I think where the MRTA falls short is the municipal opt-out. New York has seen over 50% of jurisdictions choose to opt out of allowing licenses for adult-use retail dispensaries and on-site cannabis consumption lounges within their communities. When localities draw a line in the sand, disassociating themselves from the legal adult-use market, it continues to fuel the negative stigma around the plant. Due to geographical limitations, it makes cannabis less accessible to consumers and can impact the total sales and reinvested tax revenue into disproportionately impacted communities.”
Orange, New Jersey, councilwoman Jamie Summers-Johnson agrees wholeheartedly with Ajayi. Seventy-four percent of Orange residents voted for adult-use marijuana legalization in the November general election. Yet “due to the lack of education on cannabis consumption and its effect, as well as generational trauma surrounding the marijuana plant, we received pushback from other council members,” Summers-Johnson explains to the Voice. This pushback by four other council members caused the city of Orange to ban adult-use marijuana. (The Voice reached out to those council members for comment but received no reply.) Sixty-six percent of the population of Orange identifies as Black or African American, 28.4% as Hispanic or Latino, and 13.3% as white. At the moment, the longest-standing businesses in Orange are a White Castle, a liquor store that operates until 3 a.m., and two gentlemen’s clubs. “New Jersey has decided to invest 70% of revenue to impact zones. This revenue could have aided our community greatly, but since we opted out, we have to wait five years to opt back in,” Summers-Johnson concludes.
In New York State, there is a bit more optimism. Hadas Alterman, an attorney and founding partner at Plant Medicine Law Group, has led the law firm’s work with social equity clients in New York. Alterman believes that the MRTA deserves some applause, because New York is trying to make the cannabis industry more equitable. “MRTA is one of the best cannabis laws we’ve seen, and I want to make sure that people understand why, specifically in cannabis, it is so essential to the restoration of justice that the emerging market centers on the participation of communities of color,” Alterman tells the Voice. “Many people ask whether it is the government’s job to encourage market participation from a particular group of people, which I think is a fair question. With cannabis, the answer is yes. Here’s why: Prohibitionist drug policies of the War on Drugs, promulgated and enforced by the government, have resulted in the mass incarceration of people of color. When you unjustly deprive people of their physical liberty, you can never give back those years of lost freedom. It is an unrightable wrong. The least we can do, then, is ensure that people of color can benefit from the cannabis industry now that it is legal. Is that happening? No, not currently, not according to the numbers. As a result of the War on Drugs, nearly 80% of people in federal prison and 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino. However, 81% of cannabis business owners are white, nationally, and only 4.3% identify as African American.”
Recently, officials in New York announced that they plan to reserve 100 to 200 retail cannabis licenses for people who have been convicted of marijuana-related offenses, or their relatives. On March 15, New Jersey’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) began accepting applications for licenses for cannabis dispensaries, stating that it plans to prioritize social equity businesses, diversely owned businesses, and microbusinesses. In a quote to Leafly, a website focused on cannabis use and education, CRC spokeswoman Tonni-Anne Blake stated, “The CRC is committed to doing everything we can to facilitate a diverse cannabis industry.” (Opening day of marijuana sales in New Jersey has been pushed back to sometime in May; says CRC commissioner Charles Barker, “We don’t want to rush this and get it wrong.”)
As New Jersey, like many adult-use states, tries to figure out how to do social equity the right way, I am personally motivated to make sure that Black and Brown people are elevated in the cannabis industry. I gave up on my dream to pursue a career in medicine and I now work as the social media and community manager for Brwnbox, a Black-owned CBD retail store and cannabis community center co-founded by Almaz Adeigbola and located in Orange, which serves cannabis patients across the country. In March 2021, Brwnbox received a notification from the City of Orange informing us that it planned to close down all cannabis-related businesses. We went into action by collecting comments from the community and participating in panels to understand why city council members wanted to ban cannabis businesses. Acting on these panels and watching councilwomen Summers-Johnson and Adrienne Wooten rally to inform the community reminded me of why I started my journey in cannabis equity. Though we never received a clear understanding as to why certain council members were opposing cannabis sales, we did discover a lack of education about the marijuana plant in our community: Many people didn’t understand the difference between CBD and THC, or that the genetic makeup of the hemp plant contains non-psychoactive properties.
On April 20, 2021, Ordinance 14-2021, which “prohibit[s] all manner of marijuana-related land use and development within the geographic boundaries of the City of Orange Township,” was passed. As residents, we were shocked to learn that Orange’s city council had agreed to ban adult-use marijuana businesses—it felt like the council had ignored our needs. “I am a woman of faith,” says Adeigbola. “However, sometimes it’s hard to believe that the systems that created the War on Drugs will evolve to be the savior. [But] it’s easy to be optimistic in this industry when you know that your heart is for the people. No matter what happens, we know that our priorities align with providing fellowship, quality service, and healing to our community.” ❖
Farrah Blake is a cannabis advocate and proud pot parent. She is currently social media and community manager at Brwnbox, a cannabis community center, where she helps clients find solutions for ailments and curates educational opportunities for the digital community.