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N.Y. State Assembly Leader's Priorities In Pushing Through Marijuana Legalization


Legalize marijuana is having another moment. This week, New York and New Mexico became the 15th and 16th states to legalize the recreational use of cannabis, setting up the framework for legal markets that will generate millions in tax revenues. But lawmakers in those states who crafted the bills made sure the measures also did something else - expunge past pot-related criminal records, put an end to arrests for low-level offenses and funnel a chunk of those tax revenues generated into communities harmed by the decadeslong war on drugs. For years, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes has been at the forefront of this effort in New York. She's the majority leader of the New York State Assembly, and she helped pass marijuana legalization this week.

Majority Leader Peoples-Stokes, thanks so much for speaking with us.

CRYSTAL PEOPLES-STOKES: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

FADEL: So marijuana legalization is an issue that you've been pushing for for years in New York. Why is this so important to you?

PEOPLES-STOKES: Well, I can assure you that it's not important to me that people smoke it because I don't think they should. But the fact of the matter is that they do. And they do it to the tune of multiple billion dollars a year in the state of New York. And at the same time, you know, the system has been incarcerating way too many people generationally and negatively impacting their lives. And so, for me, I saw it as an opportunity not just to legalize a product, to get access to revenue but legalize the product, get access to revenue and use it to reinvest in the lives of the people that had been destroyed due to mass incarceration.

FADEL: Right, specifically people of color.

PEOPLES-STOKES: Specifically people of color. I mean, majority people in this country who smoke marijuana tend not to be people of color.

FADEL: Right.

PEOPLES-STOKES: But in terms of the - who was criminalized, it generally was Black and brown people.

FADEL: So you've made past comments about how the protests last summer really highlighted these long-existing issues that you just mentioned, mass incarceration. And this bill, more so than those in other states, it seems, really makes racial equity essential component. Notably, 40% of tax revenue will go to communities with disproportionate marijuana arrests. Do you think the conversation around legalization is shifting?

PEOPLES-STOKES: Well, I think it always should have started from that international perspective. But I think, you know, it actually got started more about, you know, access to revenue for government. And I'm not mad about that. As a person who, you know, is a legislator, I understand that we need revenue in order to deliver services. But, you know, we watched 14 other states. And we've seen what they've done. And in those instances, it appeared that equity was a second thought, not the first. And in New York state, we felt like that should be the first thought, and access to revenue should be the second thought. And so I think what we have - were able to do is craft legislation that speaks to that. And I'm really excited about its implementation.

FADEL: Did you deal with much pushback from your colleagues?

PEOPLES-STOKES: Initially, yes. As you know, New York is a very diverse state. And so seven years ago, you know, to talk about 50% of the revenue going to communities that have been impacted was not so well-heard. People were figuring out how to get access for their communities.

FADEL: Right.

PEOPLES-STOKES: And quite honestly, I understood, and I respected that. But I didn't change my message and didn't change the principle of the legislation. We kept pushing it the way it was. I think something's changed in 2020. Clearly, the murder of George Floyd in broad daylight by a public servant and I think, you know, the whole disparity around COVID-19 and how it impacted people of color - I think people realize that, you know, racism is real. And it's not like this legislation is going to end racism, but it does begin to take down one of the racist systems that set people up to be failures as opposed that people to be contributing citizens.

FADEL: So one of the hiccups with the bill this year and in past years in other places was how to approach the issue of driving while high. And I'm wondering how you approach that conversation because that is a real concern.

PEOPLES-STOKES: It is a real concern. But, you know, New York is one of the largest marijuana markets underground in the country. So how are we approaching that now? That was my first question. And most times, people look at you blank eyed because they know that we're not. And so to all of a sudden say that we need to have some special laws in place for this is a little disingenuous. But, you know, you got to engage everybody in the conversation. So we did.

So, you know, we added resources from the legislation to do additional drug recognition training for law enforcement. We added the requirement that there be a study done to determine how much THC in one system is - actually equals impairment. We know how long THC will stay in your system, but we don't know whether or not it demonstrates impairment. And so, I mean, I think that study helped people understand that, you know, we need to - we do need to look at this 'cause we - everybody wants to be driving around on safe roads. No one wants to worry that there's someone who could be hurting themselves or others. And so we didn't just brush that off. We talked, and we negotiated. And we worked out things that were amenable to the other side who was adamant about that.

And quite honestly, at the end of the day, you can't disagree with them. We need to do this kind of research. And I'll remind people that when alcohol was changed to be a legal product, it wasn't the same year that a breathalyzer was discovered. It was years after. And so, in my estimation, you know, we're a lot further along in our science in this country, in our research and our innovation. And there's no reason why we can't come up with something a lot quicker than it did when alcohol was prohibited.

FADEL: That was Crystal Peoples-Stokes. She is the New York State Assembly majority leader and sponsored New York's marijuana legalization bill. Crystal Peoples-Stokes, thanks for being with us.

PEOPLES-STOKES: You are so welcome. Thank you for inviting me. Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.