NJ Racial Justice Advocates Push for Equitable Measures in Cannabis Legislation

©Salvation and Social Justice

On Tuesday, Nov. 10th, Salvation and Social Justice held a virtual conference called “We Voted on Cannabis, Now What?” Salvation and Social Justice is a nonpartisan organization that works with elected officials to solve complex social issues. The organization was founded by Rev. Dr. Charles F. Boyer, pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Woodbury, NJ.

“We Voted on Cannabis, Now What?” was held in response to NJ’s recent legalization bill passed on Nov. 5 (S21). The bill is officially known as the “New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act.” The panelists at the conference called for reparations for communities most impacted by the war on drugs. The bill, as presently constructed, does not address the historical harm perpetrated against communities of color. Amber Scott, Communications Director of Salvation and Social Justice, asserted that, “This is the epitome of White privilege. This is the epitome of power and structural racism.”

The bill currently sets aside 15% of licenses for minorities, which means that individuals from a multitude of diverse backgrounds that fall under this label are vying for an artificially low percent of the market. The term “reparations” has proven to be polarizing, but one must understand the larger context. That is, Salvation and Social Justice, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU NJ), are proposing that the communities most affected are invested in to repair the damage done by those in positions of power. For example, Boyer proposed an excise tax that would enable revenue to support important issues such as housing assistance, re-entry services, lower barriers to entry in the legal cannabis industry, etc.

Ami Kachalia, Campaign Strategist at the ACLU NJ, pointed out that, “NJ makes over 36,000 cannabis-related arrests every year. If you’re a Black person in NJ, you’re three and a half times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than a White person despite similar rates of use.” An important distinction was made that legalization should happen (as it was voted overwhelmingly in favor of and the panelists support it), but it needs to happen in a morally just way. Many activists outside of this panel have challenged the current structure of this bill as well.

Photograph: Edward “NJ Weedman” Forchion | ©NJ.com

Edward “NJ Weedman” Forchion recently filed a federal lawsuit against NJ Governor Phil Murphy. Forchion asserted that the state, “Successfully bamboozled the public into creating a monopoly of Caucasian cannabis corporations which the public, due to fear of arrest, would have to patronize.” That is, the language used in the bill differentiates “cannabis” and marijuana.” Cannabis, therefore, is legalized, while marijuana will be a term associated with the “black market.” Entrepreneurs such as Forchion, who might not have the sufficient funds necessary to enter the legal marketplace, will be excluded from the industry and remain subject to arrest. The bill, therefore, benefits the corporate elite. Forchion also suggested that the difference between the terms cannabis and marijuana is analogous to how crack and powder cocaine were distinguished between in years past. “The State of New Jersey wishes to treat ‘regulated cannabis’ and marijuana differently (racially), in the same manner that crack cocaine and cocaine were treated differently (racially) resulting in the disproportionate mass-incarceration of African American and Hispanic men and women in the 1990’s.”

Patrick Duff, a notable activist from Haddonfield, NJ, also weighed in on the issue. “Now, just 12 mostly white-owned corporations legally sell thousands of pounds of weed every month under existing medical marijuana laws, while thousands of Black, Brown and poor white people are still losing their freedoms. This is something that sadly will continue if S-21 is enacted.”

In a recently conducted interview, Rev. Boyer addressed the previous panel that he participated in and the ways in which communities of color can be positively impacted through legislation moving forward.

Photograph: Rev. Dr. Charles F. Boyer | ©Salvation and Social Justice

Boyer was born and raised in the church, which had a “history rooted in abolition and the rights and humanity of Black people. I saw very clearly that God had a mission for me in that space.” Eventually, following this calling led to the founding of Salvation and Social Justice.

Boyer wanted to increase the role that the Black church was playing in matters pertaining to social justice. He observed the pervasive plague of racism in the form of mass incarceration, economic injustice, police brutality, etc. When asked about pushback that Boyer received in the pursuit of his calling, he stated that, “It was definitely a shock to a lot of people.” Boyer believes that, to cut through the proverbial noise, one must continue to speak truth to power. He made it clear, though, that he speaks for the Black community — that is who his audience is. His endeavors were welcomed and viewed as “refreshing” to many others as well. “I think the current context that we’re in in the Black Lives Matter era, a lot of racism has been exposed. A lot of things that I was saying 10 years ago has been vindicated.”

When asked about controversy surrounding the term “reparations” for cannabis, Boyer stated that his audience — especially those most impacted by the war on drugs — will know exactly what he means. “If dollars are to be made in an industry that the state is setting up, then the majority of those dollars that the state has control of should come back to the community that the state was complicit in over policing, over arresting, and overcharging. We made that case, and it was obviously a compelling argument because it has shifted the narrative, and we have secured some level of victory around it.”

Ami Kachalia also established context in a recent interview. As a Campaign Strategist at the ACLU NJ, Kachalia’s work is centered around a racial justice perspective. Her work has included fighting for immigration rights, criminal legal system reform, etc. In terms of cannabis legislation, the ACLU NJ helped to found an organization called New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform in 2015. “In NJ, this [cannabis legalization] has been a campaign that’s been debated in the public sphere for a long time. What that means is that there’s been a lot of opportunity for public education about the historical basis of the war on drugs and the need to be reparative.” Kachalia included ways that the state can be reparative, such as building diversity in the legalized market. She also described a concept called “equity applicant status” that the ACLU NJ is advocating for. That is, “Designations for people who are from the communities most harmed across the state, as well as people with prior cannabis-related records. It would allow for people to get some level of prioritization within the cannabis industry.”

Advocates for social justice have been instrumental in this fight, and they have been successful at applying pressure on what many would consider to be a bill that needs refinement. In a recent development, NJ policymakers “reached a deal on a bill that will launch a legal marijuana industry in New Jersey, clearing a path for the bill to pass later this month.” The deal comes with a compromise: there will be a cap on licenses (37 available) given out for marijuana growers in the first two years of sales. New ground was established for the tireless efforts that social justice advocates have made since the bill’s inception. That is, “It [S21] also dedicates 70% of the sales tax revenue, as well as all of the funds raised by a tax on cultivators, to support restorative programs for legal aid, health care, mentoring and more in minority communities disproportionately affected by the drug war.” According to NJ.com, the bill will go before the Senate Judiciary Committee as soon as Dec. 14 and for a full vote on Dec. 17.

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