You’ve known George for his wide-ranging, always interesting and informative subjects: on Martin Luther King, his photo montage of Rochester, interfaith dialogue, urban poverty, the plans to make the Lower Falls a National Heritage Site, a critical response to a the PBS documentary “Peace Officer,” on Black Lives Matter, and on the Sacred Text’s conference at Nazareth College.
Here George argues that a sensible drug policy can help heal Rochester’s neighborhoods.
To point out that Rochester’s “War on Drugs” has failed is hardly groundbreaking journalism. One can visit Mayor Lovely Warren’s own website to see her list of priorities when it comes to making our streets and neighborhoods more safe. At the top of this list is combating open air drug markets by replicating the High Point Market Intervention Model. The Mayor points out three basic components to this model: 1) Incapacitating drug selling offenders involved in violence; 2) Diverting and deterring low-level offenders; 2) Building community partnerships to reclaim neighborhoods to sustain short term gains.
With all due respect to the Mayor, haven’t we been employing these kind of strategies for decades? Over this time period have the number of open air drug markets gone down? Isn’t it time to try something more radical and more creative?
After the successes in Colorado and Washington D.C, the opportunity to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes in Rochester has become a matter of social justice, especially for communities of color. For starters, anyone who is paying attention to our nation’s prison system will see that African- Americans are incarcerated at unprecedented rates and sentenced far more harshly than other racial groups. In a 2010 U.S. Census (including populations in all types of facilities) the Prison Policy Initiative found that the number of African- American people incarcerated per 100,000 is 1,655. Compare this with Hispanics at 607 and Whites at 219. These statistics indicate that America’s expanding prison, probation, and parole populations are being heavily recruited from what leading slavery reparations advocate Randall Robinson calls “the millions of African-Americans bottom-mired in urban hells by the savage time-release social debilitations of American slavery.”
Another think tank called The Justice Policy Institute has tracked that 77% of the growth in intake to America’s state and federal prisons over the past 20 years was accounted for by nonviolent offenders. In fact, our nonviolent prison population, alone, is larger than the combined population of Wyoming and Alaska! Given the number of inmates who were arrested for selling pot we might as well substitute the word ‘dealer’ for ‘nonviolent.’ The vast majority of these nonviolent offenders are persons of color.
What is more, the act of criminalizing a pervasive and highly desirable weed almost guarantees that the most violent members of society will create and exploit a black market to produce and distribute it. The failed U.S. policy towards marijuana has resulted in the terrifying rise of international drug cartels. In 2014, Mexican drug lord Joquin El Chapo Guzman made the Forbes List of the world’s most powerful people. As the world now knows, Guzman runs the Sinaloa Cartel, a multibillion dollar criminal organization, which supplies North America with the majority of its illegal cannabis. El Chapo is still a homicidal sadist who rules over a vast empire of satellite networks, American outposts, and even foreign companies. The brutality of gangsters such as El Chapo inevitably spills over into the streets, businesses and houses of American communities. Rochester is no exception.
Meanwhile in other states they are reaping an economic windfall from legal pot. It’s been more than two years since Colorado has allowed people to sell and buy marijuana legally. To date, recreational cannabis- with a 28% tax rate on sales- has brought over 100 million dollars in revenue to the state. (This figure includes fees on the industry, plus pre- existing sales taxes on medical marijuana products.) Once Colorado figures out how to better fund substance abuse centers, train police officers, and incorporate the health care industry into the cannabis marketplace, these revenues will easily surpass a billion per year.
Today, Coloradoan governments — at all levels are better equipped to maintain parks, repair infrastructure, purchase school textbooks and supplies, and meet other municipal demands that would otherwise go neglected.
It should also be stated that decriminalization has broad support throughout the ranks of law enforcement. Washington DC Police Chief Kathy Lanier was quoted saying, “The police hate marijuana possession arrests, they’d just as soon dump the stuff down the sewer than handle all the paperwork and the court appearance, knowing it won’t stop anyone from smoking marijuana. “All those arrests do is make people hate us,” she said. After last year’s relaxing of the law, marijuana arrests are way down, and according to a study by The Washington Times, 70 percent of those slapped with the $25 fine for public smoking or possession ignore the citation.
Fortunately, Governor Cuomo is at least moving in the right direction on medicinal cannabis. In 2014 he agreed to the Compassionate Care Act. The law called for five organizations to produce the drug and distribute it through 20 dispensaries statewide. According to the bill, the marijuna must be grown in New York.
And some sectors in Rochester are making positive steps to establish a sane and just stance on commercializing medicinal pot. This year Columbia Care LLC has announced an agreement with the Eastman Kodak Company to use 204,000 square feet of unused space to build a new, highly secured, state of the art medical marijuana cultivation facility and dispensary creating 250 jobs in Rochester and the surrounding region. Both the cultivation center and dispensary on the Eastman Business Park campus will serve regionally and throughout New York State. As the Director of the Eastman Business Park put it, “with the passage of the Compassionate Care Act, we believe that New York is well positioned to be at the vanguard of medical marijuna patient care.”
The shift in policy on the state level and corporate Rochester’s desire to profit from medical cannabis on the local level are promising signs. It is clear that we must begin to invest more wisely in our law enforcement apparatus, focus resources more strategically on municipal needs such as infrastructure and schools, divert money away from terrorist networks and drug cartels, and gradually begin to release all nonviolent drug offenders from prison. When all of these factors are taken into consideration, what piece of legislation or social justice initiative would be more effective in combating urban poverty than legalizing cannabis?
To push even further, it simply does not make sense to preserve a status quo which is extremely violent, expensive and irrational. One of my favorite quotes on this topic comes from the great cosmologist Carl Sagan who once said, “The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”
Setting these intellectual and emotional advantages aside, the prohibition of cannabis has wrought untold havoc on the lives of communities which are just trying to survive in a world that does not care about their basic needs. Legalizing cannabis is not only a sensible thing to do because there is no justification for suppressing a natural plant with intrinsic benefits, it is the only sane approach to combating a prison and criminal industrial system that is inherently unjust.
Now that we have seen recreational pot work elsewhere, there is no longer any excuse for Rochester to wait. The choice is ours. Do we want to be innovators or spectators? Do we want to be liberators or wardens? Do we want to be progressive or regressive? Either way we decide to go, the future of America is looking greener every day.