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Another Voice: Legalizing marijuana is about racial justice and civil rights

By David Schopp

The Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo has been committed to ensuring access to justice and due process to the most vulnerable individuals, children and families through quality legal representation for more than a century.

We are the largest provider responsible for the constitutional mandated representation of indigent persons charged with offenses in the City of Buffalo. This includes thousands of people convicted of low-level marijuana possession who, consequently, face a lifetime of barriers to successfully participate in society.

Every day our attorneys at LAB see the irreparable harm of marijuana arrests firsthand. Although recent statistical studies show that people of color use marijuana at similar rates to whites, they are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Here in Buffalo, although black people only make up approximately 37% of the population, they account for 68% of our clients charged with low-level marijuana possession from 2017 to present.

Because we provide holistic legal help across the full spectrum of issues affecting economically disenfranchised communities, we see the harmful effects marijuana convictions have on all aspects of our clients’ lives. The vast majority of the people we represent in these cases are young black men who are arrested in heavily policed neighborhoods. They face a range of collateral consequences including job loss, revocation of occupational licensing, loss of housing, expulsion from school or denial of eligibility for student loans.

Marijuana convictions also affect other members of the household. For example, a conviction can affect child custody or separate children from their parents. For noncitizens, it can lead to deportation. We have even represented grandmothers facing eviction after their grandchild was arrested with marijuana on the property.

Discriminatory enforcement practices have upended the lives of our clients and their families and deepened inequality in our city. Our clients and community deserve urgent action by our State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to pass the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes.

Decriminalization is not enough. Since 1977, New York has decriminalized low-level personal possession of marijuana but there has still been disproportionate targeting of communities of color. Legalizing marijuana would spare thousands of New Yorkers the trauma of racial and economic injustice, the burden of court involvement and fines and countless collateral consequences. For many, relief cannot wait.

David Schopp is the executive director of the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo.

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