Passing New Jersey’s bill to legalize cannabis is a historic step toward racial equity | Opinion


By Charles Franklin Boyer

Cannabis legalization started in the dark. Just days after New Jerseyans voted overwhelmingly to legalize cannabis and to roll back our state’s decades-old War on Drugs, state lawmakers tried to force quick passage of a cannabis bill without seeking input from those of us who have been most impacted by over-policing: Black and Latinx communities and New Jersey’s inner cities. For too long, our brothers and sisters have suffered at the hands of racist policies that criminalized Black and Latinx people as drugs funneled into our communities.

Six weeks after New Jersey voted ‘yes’ to cannabis legalization, the dedicated advocacy of activists, community organizers, and faith leaders across New Jersey reshaped this policy process. Gov. Phil Murphy and Speaker Craig Coughlin responded to our continued calls for equity in legalization and this bill has improved substantially to include provisions that ensure racial reparative justice. This moment’s historical significance cannot be understated. As we launch this historic new cannabis market, our commitment is to ensure that New Jersey finally delivers overdue reparations and social repair.

Thanks to the collective work with our partners in the movement, the bill ensures that 70% of sales tax revenue and an excise tax will directly fund programs designed to better the communities most impacted by the drug war. Additionally, lawmakers expanded the number of licenses available to operate in the new cannabis market, from 28 to 37, with 15% set aside to allow communities of color and veterans to enter the new cannabis market. The number of licenses will increase in two years.

Community leaders advocated, and certain elected officials took heed of these cries from New Jersey’s most marginalized communities. Their transparent and forward-thinking collaboration with us resulted in many of the long-overdue victories in this bill. Governor Murphy stood firm for racial justice, and Representative Jamel Holly fought for racial justice provisions. Speaker Coughlin’s support of the social equity excise tax was also instrumental for inclusion in the bill. Lastly, champions like State Senator Troy Singleton and State Senator Teresa Ruiz relentlessly pushed for the sales tax provisions to go directly to community programs.

While we can celebrate the victories in this bill, our work to repair the damage done by the War on Drugs has just begun. Although we made significant progress concerning the taxes and reparations components of the bill, there are a number of steps needed to protect these victories and to keep the movement on track.

First, it’s vital that the funds set aside for community programming are protected. During budget shortfalls, lawmakers have a habit of raiding these accounts. A constitutional amendment to codify the tax measures has been proposed but it would need voter approval. Reparations for Black people should never be decided by a majority white electorate.

Second, impacted communities deserve a strong voice with the newly formed Cannabis Regulatory Commission. We’re calling on the legislature to find a statutory means of solidifying community input into the process. It is critical that communities most impacted have a say on where dollars go within their communities.

Third, cannabis legalization is a crucial moment to build an endowment for housing and education as a means of reparative justice. Research shows that property ownership and higher levels of education can mitigate poverty — investing in our communities is the type of multiplier effect that can lower our state’s poverty rate.

Finally, it’s essential that we take steps to prevent this new market from becoming a backdoor opportunity for well-financed out-of-state corporations to profit off of New Jerseyans. This process must focus on removing barriers for people of color, particularly for individuals with prior convictions, to participate in the new market — achievable by increasing the licenses set aside for minorities, lowering barriers to entry for those who work in the underground cannabis market to get licenses.

As a Black faith-rooted organization committed to our theory of change, we embraced this pivotal moment at a time when many community and faith leaders avoided this dialogue. History consistently reveals that when Black people of faith are engaged in advocacy movements, liberation for all people, from all places of darkness occurs.

New Jersey needs to be liberated from the War on Drugs. We have an opportunity to move past the stigmas, stereotypes and taboos of cannabis by making better investments in public health for communities around New Jersey. Looking forward, this cannabis legalization bill lays the foundation for how we start to decriminalize and end over-policing of communities of color in New Jersey.

Rev. Dr. Charles Franklin Boyer is the pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Woodbury and the founding director of Salvation and Social Justice.

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