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By Ronald L. Rice
I’m upset. Angry. And it should come as no surprise that when my fellow senators vote this week on marijuana legalization amendment S-21, I will stand against it in solidarity with people from every community who have been deceived and lied to at every turn in this three-year process.
Black, brown and white residents have been played for fools with half-truths and empty promises from legislators enchanted by the conjuring of Wall Street investors. Envisioning windfall returns and profits, they have run headlong into the chasm, chasing the dollar as though money was the only value. Money, state revenue and state budget do matter. But so does the quality of life, business stability, a neighborhood’s health and well-being and the safety of the public, its highways and workplaces.
We all know the three-year history of legislators seeing too much impending danger in the recreational marijuana legalization bill and finally having to resort to kicking it down the road for voters’ approval last month. Now, my colleagues are playing catch-up as they hammer out the details amid a fierce outcry from business owners, labor leaders and educators worried about employer rights and protections, worker safety and drug testing, customer, client and student safety, insurance, liability and court cases.
Those questions have been barnacled to the issue from the beginning as legalization has drifted from state to state. When they floated to the surface in the public hearings I held across New Jersey, I shared those concerns with my fellow senators. Yet here we are, after Election day, scrambling to ward off harm, trying to protect ourselves from ourselves, and all the while patting each other on the back for our earth-shattering leap toward “social justice.”
We’ve withstood three years of bellowed insistence that “social justice” sits at the center of legalization. Three years of this pathetic caravan winding its way through the desert in search of something to suck sustenance from while one straw after another was placed on the camels’ backs. I’m upset to have witnessed it all collapse under the weight of the final straw this week. Camels and caravan lie as broken now as the promises they carried.
For all the cries for social justice, senate leaders revealed their total cluelessness at how to compensate communities that have suffered the most from the systemic racism evident in marijuana arrests. There was an early glimmer of hope when New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus members, in accordance with civil rights leaders, insisted that the recreational marijuana legalization amendment to New Jersey’s constitution provide for restorative justice to communities most harmed by the oppressive, racist targeting. The provision crafted to infuse 70% of marijuana sales tax revenue into those so-called “impact zones” was a huge step forward … until Senate leadership inconceivably placed yet another inexplicable barrier to full justice:
The proffered restorative provision would not be in perpetuity, as expected, but rather for one year only, after which it would be subject to a general vote at the polls.
This backpedaling of justice, fairness and compassion is confounding in its brazenness and is flat-out unacceptable. It reveals a total disregard for history, disinterest in our future and disrespect for families. It is insulting, offensive and diabolically short-sighted to leave funding so vital to urban and poor communities subject to changing tides and not firmly anchored into a constitutional amendment.
I’m angry because some of my fellow lawmakers seem incapable of grasping the reality that while New Jersey’s Blacks make up only 14% of our population, systemic and structural racism has resulted in them unjustly comprising 54% of our prison population.
I’m angry at my colleagues who can’t comprehend that Black lifespans are shorter specifically from the singular stress of being born Black — of living a life that necessitates constant, incessant vigilance for our safety and survival.
I’m angry that my colleagues can’t fathom that while some people are born into wealth, most minorities are born into debt — the cumulative total deficit of centuries of oppression and withheld opportunity. The debt that keeps families so occupied treading water that they never reach the shore.
I know from experience that many will read my words and choose to consider me a lone wolf howling in the darkness. But in truth, I am aligned with more than 500 Black elected officials and faith leaders throughout New Jersey. The majority of this vast coalition, in union with Black caucus members and many bipartisan legislators, consider the myopic stinginess of 12 months of restorative revenue to be a crumb thrown to the starving. History has proven that when minorities don’t fight for justice it is denied. So together, we fight now for this restorative justice to be continued into perpetuity through an amendment to our state constitution.
I don’t think any reasonable person would wonder why I, and so many others, are angry. We are sick and tired of misinformed, entitled, self-absorbed people who have never been the target of social injustice describing what it looks like to those of us who have.