Inequitable Marijuana Criminalization, COVID-19, and Socioeconomic Disparities: The Case for Community Reinvestment in New York

A new report released today by the Drug Policy Alliance and the Public Science Project at the Graduate Center, CUNY, Inequitable Marijuana Criminalization, COVID-19, and Socioeconomic Disparities: The Case for Community Reinvestment in New York, shows deep racial disparities and economic impacts in marijuana arrests across the state of New York. Four specific case studies document how, despite regional differences, people of color in New York City, New Rochelle, Syracuse, and Buffalo are consistently over-represented in marijuana arrests, and areas with the highest marijuana arrest rates also tend to have proportionally larger populations of color, according to the report. Across all cities, there were also higher COVID-19 positivity rates among the high marijuana arrest zip codes compared to the low marijuana arrest zip codes.

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In each city, which were selected to represent different regions within the state, as well as economic, educational, and racial diversity, the average poverty rate was significantly higher among the high marijuana arrest zip codes and the high marijuana arrest zip codes consistently have nearly half the median household income of the low marijuana arrest zip codes – except for New Rochelle, where the disparity is even greater. The average percentage of families receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in high marijuana arrest zip codes was at least three times greater than in low marijuana arrest zip codes. In addition, every high marijuana arrest zip code had both lower rates of home ownerships and lower median home values than low marijuana arrest zip codes.

The extreme racial disparities in New York’s marijuana arrest crusade, as detailed in the case studies in this report, are the result of targeted criminalization and structural racism – and the same factors that have driven the marijuana arrest crusade have also resulted in generational wealth impacts. Now, as this report shows, there are also extreme disparities in the impact of COVID-19 in the same neighborhoods.

Legalization provides an opportunity to invest a significant portion of marijuana tax revenue in the communities that bore the worst of marijuana criminalization and are now deeply impacted by COVID-19. Both groups support the comprehensive Marijuana Reform and Taxation Act (MRTA), which is the gold standard reform bill in the Legislature. It provides strong community reinvestment and social equity provisions, comprehensively addresses prior criminalization, and has a balanced governance structure for the Office of Cannabis Management.