Public advocate-elect Jumaane Williams was at the steps of City Hall for his first press conference since being elected last month to push against Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio‘s plan to tax marijuana sales in order to fund the MTA as part of their congestion pricing plan.

    Williams and City Councilman Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton), who held the press conference want marijuana to be decriminalized and for people who are in jail simply for marijuana arrests to be released, have their records expunged and for those people to have access to the funds to profit off of legal marijuana sales, according to the elected officials.

    “This happens a lot,” said Williams. “Communities that are black and brown are doing things to survive and the government takes over and leaves them in the lurch.”

    Williams and Richards want the money that will be gained after marijuana is legalized to benefit the people from communities that have harmed the worst by the War on Drugs, particularly black and brown communities, which have higher drug arrests despite smoking marijuana at virtually the same rate as white folks.

    “They are now coming and saying ‘we are going to legalize it’ and they are going to take the money and put it elsewhere,” said Williams. “That money should be used for nothing more to address the issues that these communities have been dealing with the same thing that we are now legalizing.”

    Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. Photo by Naeisha Rose.

    Williams and Richards want discussions on expunging records, guarantees that there are business opportunities for people of color who want to enter the legal marijuana business and for funds to go to business incubators, funding schools in communities of color and community initiatives before anything is siphoned by the MTA.

    “We don’t have time to play with people’s lives,” said Richards. “We have to correct the injustices now.”

    Richards wants the city and local communities to have control over the revenue that would be generated by the legal sale of marijuana over the state, which wants to fix the rundown transit system as a part of the Cuomo and de Blasio’s 10-point plan.

    “We should dictate where that money goes,” said Richards. “Where should this money go? It should go into start-up programming for communities of color, incubator space, and low-interest loans. It is not enough to say we are going to correct the past if we are not going to ensure that our communities get a full complement of a program. We don’t want a slice of the pie. We are not looking for contact, we are looking for contracts.”

    When it came to his 31st district, which represents Arverne, Brookville, Edgemere, Far Rockaway, Rosedale, Springfield Gardens and Laurelton, Richards wants to examine what Oakland, California is doing to make sure its citizens benefit from legal marijuana sales.

    “There they ensure that individuals who were summonsed and arrested were prioritized when it came to permitting and contracting [for legal marijuana businesses],” said Richards. “We want to see something similar here.”

    Councilman Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn) was also there to speak against Cuomo and de Blasio’s proposal to siphon legal marijuana sales for transit upkeep and upgrades without acknowledging the communities destroyed by marijuana arrests.

    “So when it is black and brown poor people using marijuana to take care of their home, to take care of their house, we demonize them, we say that they are criminals,” said Reynoso. “When it is Governor Cuomo using the marijuana to fix his house, his MTA, we say that it is a good thing, I disagree.”

    Victims that have been arrested for using marijuana should be a part of the legalization process, according to Reynoso.

    “The conversations that are happening at the top are completely disconnected from the people, and what is happening on the grounds, from the people that don’t look like the people who got arrested whose lives were destroyed,” said Reynoso. “The voices that should be heard are the ones that were most affected.”

    Councilman Ben Kallos (D-Manhattan), the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, was the last speaker at the event.

    “The fact that Albany and City Hall are trying to steal the money from marijuana legalization and use it for something wholly unrelated is why no one trusts governments,” said Kallos. “We have a historic opportunity here. When it comes to alcohol, tobacco, and opiates all that money is going away from the communities that it is harming and now we have a chance with legalization to ensure that goes back into communities that have been devastated by the War on Drugs.”

    Kallos wants the victims on the War on Drugs to have their records expunged, to have health insurance, mental health care, legal assistance to have their records expunged and job training.

    “Every single penny should be going to folks who have been harmed,” said Kallos.

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