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City Hall hearing to explore reforming state’s marijuana laws

Blacks make up about 40 percent of Buffalo’s population, but account for nearly 80 percent of those arrested in the city on low-level marijuana charges.

In Erie County, blacks are almost six times more likely than whites to be arrested on a marijuana-possession charge.

Those racial disparities play a big role for advocates pushing for the reform of the state’s marijuana laws, a conversation that will come to Buffalo City Hall on Wednesday.

A public forum will be held at 10 a.m. in Council Chambers on the 13th floor, where the discussion will surround the proposed Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act sponsored by Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, and State Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan.

“We think it’s time for New York to try a new approach,” said Julie Netherland, deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City-based organization with offices across the country calling for reforming the state’s marijuana laws.

Usage rates for marijuana are relatively equal across races – use among young whites is actually higher than among young people of color, Netherland said – but blacks and Latinos are disproportionately arrested.

In addition to the racial disparities in arrest rates, marijuana convictions carry with them “a number of collateral consequences,” she said. Those include impeding access to employment, student loans and housing, as well as causing problems in issues of child custody and immigration.

Buffalo police officials did not respond to interview requests for this story.

The proposed law would decriminalize possessing less than two ounces of marijuana. It also would allow the home cultivation of up to six marijuana plants. Both provisions would apply to individuals 18 and older.

A similar proposal was introduced in the State Legislature in 2013, though neither has come up for a vote. The Republican-controlled State Senate is seen as a barrier to passage and though the state has approved restricted uses of medical marijuana, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been criticized by advocates for aspects of the program’s implementation.

The marijuana laws on the books represent one example of the failure of America’s “war on drugs,” said John Washington, a community organizer with PUSH Buffalo, a nonprofit community organization.

Not only do the current marijuana laws cost taxpayers a lot of money for enforcement and incarceration, but they also cause a lot of tension between communities and the police, Washington said.

Washington credited Peoples-Stokes for her willingness to make a proposal on the controversial issue and said he sees this as an opportunity to start a community conversation about marijuana legalization and marijuana in general.

Anthony Baney of the Buffalo Cannabis Movement agrees with Washington in his assessment of the state’s existing marijuana laws.

“These laws have destroyed communities in New York, especially Buffalo,” Baney said.

In 2014, 79.3 percent of those arrested in Buffalo on fifth-degree marijuana possession charges were black, while 12.7 percent were white and 6.6 percent were Hispanic, according to statistics from the state Division of Criminal Justice Statistics provided by the Buffalo Cannabis Movement.

Historically, the figures are similar.

From 1977 to 2014, 70.3 percent of those arrested on fifth-degree marijuana possession charges in Buffalo were black, with 24.4 percent being white and 4.2 percent Hispanic, state figures show.

A 2010 report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that blacks were 5.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Erie County than whites. Across the state, a black person is 4.5 times more likely to face a marijuana charge than a white person.

That report also found Niagara County trailed only three other counties in the state in terms of racial disparities in marijuana arrest rates.

Wednesday’s session, which is open to the public, is not a formal legislative hearing. Several parties were contacted in advance and asked to provide testimony. Those who attend the event may have a chance to deliver their own testimony, but also will be given the chance to submit comments by mail.