With recreational use of marijuana now legal in New York, many in the South Bronx are readying for new economic opportunities after decades of inequities and over-policing that resulted from laws treating possession in any amount as a criminal offense.

 The new state law, which took effect March 31, allows state residents to possess up to 3 ounces of cannabis for recreational use. The law also treats marijuana like alcohol in determining driving impairment and treats it like smoking in leaving it to state and local regulations to determine where it can be used in public.  In the South Bronx, marijuana will be banned in city parks, playgrounds, and nearby schools.

 The law is groundbreaking at a national level in its prioritization of racial equity. Forty percent of tax revenue collected for cannabis sales will go to communities most harmed by previous marijuana laws, as measured by rates of marijuana arrests.

 A study by the New York Times found that Hispanic people across the city had been arrested on low-level marijuana charges at five times the rate of white people in 2018. The same year, Black people were arrested at 15 times the rate of white people for marijuana crimes in the city, resulting in heated claims that marijuana use was one avenue for law enforcement to target people of color. 

“It’s really a gold standard bill for marijuana justice,” said Eli Northup of Bronx Defenders. “It is about repairing past harm in these specific communities…so people who have been selling previously, those who have convictions, are going to be able to  participate in this marijuana economy.” 

Some marijuana-related offenses remain illegal and will require offenders to serve sentences.  However, the vast majority of arrests and convictions over marijuana possession and use had involved possession of fewer than 3 ounces according to the American Civil Liberties Union. 

Under the new law, those whose marijuana-related offenses involved possession or sale of fewer than 3 ounces will see those crimes removed from police and court records.  Northrup estimates this will impact thousands of New Yorkers. “For most possession and sale offenses, those records will automatically be expunged,” he said.

 State Senator Luis Sepulveda, who has pushed for this change since his first days in the state Assembly, explained why the law had taken so long to pass. “The racial equity component is why it took as long as it did.  Legislators from communities of color would not sign off on it without the racial equity component,” said Sepulveda.

While much of the legislation has already taken effect, for Sepulveda the impact of the new laws will only become visible in the decades to come. “Regardless of how you feel morally, this legislation is going to be a gamechanger from an economic level,” he said. 

It is estimated that New York will generate $350 million per year from the recreational marijuana market in tax revenue. 

Supporters hope that South Bronx neighborhoods also will be able to benefit from new business opportunities. Medicinal marijuana has been legal in New York State since 2014, and one medical dispensary is currently located in Hunts Point. 

That sole dispensary is part of a national chain of locations. There are concerns that national franchises will quickly corner the marker on recreational marijuana in New York. Local officials and residents hope that the economic opportunity promised in the new bill will cultivate jobs and strong businesses from inside the community.

Other concerns linger among some residents. In the Bronx, several PTAs and religious leaders have opposed legalization, citing worries that it will change the perception of marijuana among young people and in schools.  Some concerns hearken back to language used decades ago during the War on Drugs when marijuana was derided as a “gateway drug” to more harmful and still-illegal substances. 

Alana Maltiesse, who spent 20 years working for the state in drug counseling and user rehabilitation, thinks those concerns are overblown and that the new law will do far more good than harm. 

“The gateway drug logic is pretty flawed in my opinion, because every argument you could make about marijuana, you could also make about alcohol,” she said. “Obviously, that is legal so as long as rational parameters are in place. It’s better off, particularly here in the Bronx, for it to be legal.” She believes the state was wise to set the age limit for legal use at 21, as opposed to 18, which other states have done

Individual municipalities have the right to opt-out of the recreational economic aspect of the law, and conservative localities in upstate and Long Island are considering denying permits for recreational sale in their communities. Should more communities choose not to participate, the Bronx will be eligible to receive a greater share.

For elected officials like Sepulveda, the real impact of the new law will be felt for generations to come.

Speaking of previous marijuana laws, he added, “So many people have missed out on jobs and scholarships because of this law. Marijuana is no longer going to be holding people back from achieving their goals.”

Radhamely De Leon contributed to this story. 

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