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