Pressures of social equity dominate pending cannabis reform in Connecticut

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Minority voices demand racial justice as CT legislators navigate legalization of recreational cannabis

Sarah Canseco

Journalism 2001W / University of Connecticut

May 5, 2021

Pun­ished for embrac­ing the highs of his ado­les­cence, Jason Ortiz was only a sopho­more in high school when he was forced to under­stand the harsh real­i­ties of mod­ern-day drug poli­cies in Connecticut.

At 16-years-old, Ortiz was charged with pos­ses­sion of mar­i­jua­na as a minor and was sus­pend­ed from school for 45 days. Rather than see­ing his sit­u­a­tion as a set­back, Ortiz viewed this time as a pow­er­ful opportunity—a chance to advo­cate for those dis­ad­van­taged by the same strict cannabis poli­cies as him.

Now with decades of expe­ri­ence push­ing for lenient reform, Ortiz is one of the many indi­vid­u­als con­tin­u­ing to enforce the need for strong social equi­ty as Gov. Ned Lamont’s cannabis bill con­tin­ues to gain trac­tion through­out the state.

Since the start of the War on Drugs in the 1970s, peo­ple of col­or have been most dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect­ed by intense polic­ing and high lev­els of mass incar­cer­a­tion due to restric­tive cannabis poli­cies across the country.

In over half the states in the U.S. 80% of those indi­vid­u­als sub­ject to traf­fic stops, police vio­lence, arrests and cita­tions due to cannabis are peo­ple of color.

While a few states includ­ing Con­necti­cut have since decrim­i­nal­ized pos­ses­sion of cannabis begin­ning in June 2011, Black res­i­dents have remained around four times more like­ly to be arrest­ed for con­sump­tion and sale of cannabis than white residents.

No Legalization, No Peace

A mem­ber of CARES-CT and pres­i­dent of the Minor­i­ty Cannabis Busi­ness Asso­ci­a­tion, Ortiz believes that the only way to achieve racial jus­tice is by imple­ment­ing legal­iza­tion of cannabis on all levels.

Jason Ortiz is a Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut Alum and Direc­tor of Stu­dents for Sus­tain­able Drug Pol­i­cy. / UConn SSDP

“Decrim­i­nal­iza­tion doesn’t solve the whole prob­lem,” says Ortiz. “Peo­ple often for­get that decrim­i­nal­iza­tion doesn’t include sales, distribution—homegrown even. The black mar­ket still exists, and this is where a lot of people—especially young people—try to get ahold of mar­i­jua­na and end up being arrest­ed. Legal­iza­tion would help to elim­i­nate these unsafe routes of pos­ses­sion, which in hand reduces polic­ing and over­all vio­lence. This shouldn’t just be about rev­enue like some leg­is­la­tors are try­ing to make this out to be—this is a his­tor­i­cal issue, embed­ded in a sys­tem of racism and we shouldn’t make reform a game of gotcha.”

So far, cannabis leg­is­la­tion per­mits adults 21 years and old­er to pos­sess about 1.5 ounces of cannabis at a time. How­ev­er, fines and mis­de­meanor charges are already in the works for those who may be in pos­ses­sion of more and are expect­ed to be decid­ed by offi­cers on an indi­vid­ual basis.

State Rep. Robyn Porter, D‑New Haven, has expressed crit­i­cism over the leg­is­la­tion, say­ing that it cre­ates an envi­ron­ment of “sub­jec­tive enforce­ment” by allow­ing police offi­cers to deter­mine what con­sti­tutes as an “arrestable amount” of cannabis.

Rep. D’Agostino, D‑Hamden, appears not as con­cerned about the pro­vi­sion, say­ing that cannabis penal­ties are “noth­ing new” to the state and are seen as emi­nent ways to reg­u­late the sale of cannabis with­in the black market.

Fol­low­ing last year’s protests for increased police account­abil­i­ty, Porter wor­ries that pri­or­i­tiz­ing law enforce­ment with­in cannabis reform direct­ly under­mines the state’s goals of legalization.

“Way too often is cannabis used as a scape­goat for the high preva­lence of dis­crim­i­na­tion in this coun­try,” says Porter. They tried to call Michael Brown aggres­sive because of it. They tried to say Trayvon Martin—a child—was a bad per­son because it. And they even sent Derek Har­ris to jail for sell­ing less than $30 of it. Three Black men all crim­i­nal­ized for cannabis. This isn’t a coin­ci­dence. Soon­er or lat­er, we must real­ize that these exact excus­es con­tribute to sys­tem­at­ic racism—they make it hard­er for Black peo­ple to get jobs, to get an education—to live a nor­mal life. And unfor­tu­nate­ly, police are at the heart of this hurt caused by decades of prohibition.”

Fixing the Root of the Problem

Rep. Robyn Porter, D‑New Haven, is Labor Com­mit­tee Chair­woman and an active mem­ber of CURE-CT. / New Haven Arts Coun­cil 2021

Stud­ies done by the ACLU con­clude that Black Amer­i­cans are three times more like­ly to end up in prison sys­tems due to cannabis pos­ses­sion, sales and con­sump­tion. In most cas­es, many of these indi­vid­u­als come from extreme lev­els of pover­ty and expo­sure to inad­e­quate liv­ing con­di­tions due to lack of gov­ern­ment intervention. 

“For a lot of young, Black teens, this feels like the only option,” says Ander­son Cur­tis, a pol­i­cy advo­cate for ACLU Conn. “For decades chil­dren and adults have felt the need to resort to drug deal­ing because it’s the only way we feel we can stay afloat. Either we can’t afford an edu­ca­tion so we sell weed or we sell weed, go to jail and then can’t get an edu­ca­tion because of our record. It’s a lose-lose sit­u­a­tion. If we focused on build­ing low-income com­mu­ni­ties up, then the root of the prob­lem would be way bet­ter addressed. But you can’t rea­son­ably pun­ish chil­dren for going down path­ways that they were nev­er edu­cat­ed out of.”

Cur­tis believes that in order to bet­ter help these com­mu­ni­ties, real­lo­ca­tion of cannabis rev­enue would be the best place to start.

Ander­son Cur­tis cur­rent­ly serves as the inter­im senior field orga­niz­er and pol­i­cy advo­cate for ACLU-CT. / ACLU-CT, 2019

This way, Black cannabis busi­ness­es, reha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­grams, advi­so­ry groups and oth­er equi­ty ini­tia­tives cur­rent­ly absent in the state’s leg­is­la­tion could be bet­ter focused and spot­light­ed, he says.

Estab­lish­ing reform on a com­mu­ni­ty-based frame­work would allow leg­is­la­tors to not only local­ize cannabis rev­enue, but it would decrease the preva­lence of high tax prison systems.

Real­lo­ca­tion would not only give peo­ple of col­or the chance to reha­bil­i­tate their lives, but it would also lessen the eco­nom­ic strain on the state’s crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, Cur­tis noted.

Flipping the Market

On March 30, New York legal­ized recre­ation­al cannabis, putting social equi­ty at the cen­ter­stage of this issue through a “three-pronged approach.”

Through this approach, Gov. Andrew Cuo­mo agreed to enact three major types of reform. First, he expunged all crim­i­nal records and charges relat­ed to cannabis which result­ed in the expunge­ment of over 100,000 records. Sec­ond, he set up reha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­grams for indi­vid­u­als affect­ed by cannabis crim­i­nal­iza­tion, giv­ing them direct out­lets to jobs and oth­er resources. And third, he opt­ed to ded­i­cate an annu­al 50% of tax rev­enues to pro­grams which help indi­vid­u­als dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect­ed by the war on drugs.

Ortiz—a fan of the legislation—has pro­posed a sim­i­lar labor bill for the state, hop­ing to reflect famil­iar qual­i­ties in their own legislation.

“It’s time to tran­si­tion to a mar­ket that is more Black-owned, Black-pro­duced, Black-run, and Black-led,” said Ortiz There is a white monop­oly on a Black issue and it’s time we hear out the peo­ple who know this issue best. We have enough finances in the gen­er­al bud­get to fund gen­er­al needs, we have enough finances in the secu­ri­ty bud­get for secu­ri­ty, but what we don’t have enough of is finances going towards Black and Brown munic­i­pal­i­ties. Our neigh­bor­ing states have done it, so there’s no rea­son we can’t do it either.”

The pro­posed labor bill would tar­get peo­ple of col­or most affect­ed by the crim­i­nal­iza­tion of cannabis, includ­ing those who have been fined or arrested.

One of the impor­tant fea­tures of the bill would be the expunge­ment of all crim­i­nal records regard­ing pos­ses­sion of cannabis or intent to sell. This would allow the same indi­vid­u­als to become equi­ty appli­cants where they would be able to go to the front line for resources and labor oppor­tu­ni­ties in cannabis sales or cultivation.

This new bill would dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduce the amount of peo­ple in jail as well as the num­ber of steeps bar­ri­ers to eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple of color.

This way, more peo­ple of col­or could start their own busi­ness­es, allow­ing them to diver­si­fy the mar­ket and con­trol a small part of the cannabis indus­try for themselves.

Moving Forward & Doing it Right

Ker­ba Smith-Bold­en who runs the only Black-owned cannabis busi­ness in Conn. hopes that she’ll be able to see more peo­ple of col­or in shops beside her, encour­ag­ing leg­is­la­tors to include more peo­ple of col­or in upcom­ing dis­cus­sions of cannabis reform.

Ker­ba Smith-Bold­en is the own­er and pres­i­dent of Can­na­Health in New Haven, CT where she helps med­ical cannabis patients receive cannabis licens­es. / NECANN, 2021

Smith-Bold­en, the own­er of Can­na­Health in New Haven, was a mem­ber on Lamont’s cannabis equi­ty pro­vi­sion group back in Feb­ru­ary, which left her feel­ing “very unim­pressed and skep­tic about the future.”

“It felt like I was just there so some­one could say I was includ­ed,” says Smith-Bold­en. “Hav­ing Black peo­ple around is not an acces­so­ry. We are real peo­ple who have seen our friends, our fam­i­ly mem­bers and our com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers become sub­ject to a sys­tem of racism and vio­lence. I am the only woman of col­or who has had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to run a busi­ness like this. And let me tell you, being the first and the only isn’t always a spe­cial thing. Quite frankly, it’s sad. No one should be left in the dust because of some­thing that every­one is doing or get­ting their hands on one way or anoth­er. I’d like to see more busi­ness­es like mine, there’s no rea­son we can’t do more.”

Smith-Bold­en says until more is dis­cussed, she can­not accept the slim equi­ty pro­vi­sions as is and is will­ing to wait anoth­er year until all equi­ty issues are thor­ough­ly addressed.

While Lamont’s bill has passed through judi­cia­ry com­mit­tee meet­ings, includ­ing equi­ty pro­vi­sions sug­gest­ed by Porter and Ortiz, many advo­cates say there is still more to be discussed.

Caught between him­self and equi­ty advo­cates, Lam­ont remains at cross-roads with the bill. But he hopes to reach a com­pro­mise before the end of the leg­isla­tive ses­sion on June 9.

“For some peo­ple, they may think we’re ask­ing for too much,” says. Smith-Bold­en. “But the thing is, how can you tell some­one like me that I am being too loud when I have always been asked to be silent? It’s all or noth­ing here and I hope the Lam­ont choos­es to keep lis­ten­ing. We are just get­ting started.”