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The Northeast green rush: Is equity a priority?

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signs legislation to set up a recreational marijuana marketplace, Feb. 22 in Trenton, N.J. (Associated Press)
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signs legislation to set up a recreational marijuana marketplace, Feb. 22 in Trenton, N.J. (Associated Press)
By Hector “Freedom Love” Gerardo EVERCANNABIS Correspondent

The fiscal future of the United States is uncertain following the yearlong COVID-19 pandemic. However, the governors of three Northeast states – Connecticut, New Jersey and New York – have all spoken publicly about the financial benefit of tax income derived from the sales of legalized adult-use of cannabis.

New Jersey

The Garden State passed a constitutional amendment to legalize cannabis in November 2020, but the rules, regulations and implementation parameters still had to be determined. On Feb. 22, Gov. Philip Murphy signed three bills legalizing the adult-use of recreational cannabis and allowing people ages 21 and older to possess up to 6 ounces of cannabis without consequence.

However, there are some glaring red flags:

• Home grow has been excluded. If someone is found to be growing cannabis without a license, they will be prosecuted.

• People from the ages of 18-20 who are found in possession of cannabis will be fined. Why is this a problem? Consider what areas of New Jersey where this policy will be strictly enforced: predominantly Black and brown communities with a heavy police presence, like Newark and Camden.

• There is no mention of labor peace agreements. New Jersey medicinal cannabis employers have been staunchly anti-union and intimidated workers that have tried to unionize for years.

The cannabis industry is applauding New Jersey for its quick legalization process – in Massachusetts, it took two years to get to a law – but what’s the rush if equity was barely a footnote in the bills?

New York

For the past two years advocates in New York have felt like they are on the verge of achieving legalization, and then something happens to put the brakes on. Last year, the pandemic stalled hopes of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) being passed. Gov. Andrew Cuomo put out his own bill, the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act in 2020 (CRTA), but the MRTA kept equity front and center, and will not solely benefit multi-state operators.

This year is going to be the third attempt at legalization. Here is what you need to know about MRTA:

• Preference: Advocates across the state have carefully crafted this bill with legislators and with policymakers in other states that have legalized recreational cannabis. The MRTA has strong similarities to the Illinois cannabis legalization law passed in 2019.

• Equity: The MRTA talks about equity boldly and makes clear that the reclassification/resentencing of cannabis-related convictions should be retroactive.

Connecticut

One of the two cannabis legalization bills presented in Connecticut has a very clear intersectional lens that will benefit its citizens in a meaningful way. Its also being championed by women and women of color.

According to State Sen. Julie Kushner, who co-introduced HB-337, “when constructing the bill, we wanted to welcome a new industry into the state, but also asked ourselves ‘how do we make this industry beneficial to our communities, how do we build a workforce and employers who both represent our community?’” the senator said in a recent interview.

HB-337 is the most unique of any bill or law in the U.S. because of it is very clear and intentional focus on equity and labor peace. Lawmakers are approaching legalization at the intersection of labor and equity – a unique framework that will undoubtedly fill the gap that so many recreational cannabis use laws have created over the years.

“We need to resist jumping ahead and not getting this right … If we don’t do it right now, it will take decades to fix/address this [equity and labor peace],” Sen. Kushner said.

A few highlights of HB-337:

• Equity: The bill ensures that BIPOC communities have licensing opportunities, mitigating and/or reclassifying criminal justice inequities that exist as a result of cannabis possession and/or use. There is a carve out for Native American communities, which elevates this bill as the new gold standard of cannabis legalization bills.

• The implementation of labor peace agreements for cannabis workers. This means that an employer will remain neutral if their workers decide to organize into a union. There would also be protections for contract negotiations that would create timelines and the implementation of statutory arbitration if timelines are not met. Labor peace agreements exist in some state legalization laws and have been tremendously beneficial for cannabis workers, but also for the industry, ensuring workers (and therefore consumers) are safe through the implementation of workplace safety measures.

• A consideration that is a first in any legalization bill is a carve out of labor peace for cannabis businesses owned operated on tribal land. Sen. Kushner recalls her experience in the 1990s when casinos opened on Native American land and it took 20 years for workers to successfully unionize, hoping to prevent a similar situation for cannabis workers.

This bill is the product of legislators working with advocates and listening to the community that has been most impacted by cannabis prohibition.

Freedom Love is host/executive producer of the Blue Dream Radio Podcast. The Afro-Dominican cannabis advocate and community organizer grew up in the Dominican Republic and the United States.
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