As majority leader of the New York State Assembly, Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes long ago joined the Albany hierarchy that admits few to its select ranks.
The Buffalo Democrat has paid her dues since her election in 2002: committee chairwoman, head of the Legislative Women's Caucus, co-chairwoman of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's re-election in 2014. And as majority leader, she ranks only behind Speaker Carl E. Heastie in the lower house.
But as champion of the just-passed landmark bill that legalizes adult marijuana use, Peoples-Stokes last week may have made her most important impression yet – not only among Albany insiders, but on the way New Yorkers lead their lives. Smoking cannabis will move from behind closed doors into a mostly accepting society, and just about everyone associated with the effort credits Peoples-Stokes with making it happen.
"You needed a strong representative who has relationships and also a person of color, and that's why it had to be Crystal," said Sen. Diane J. Savino, a Staten Island Democrat long active in the legalization effort. "And then you had to have someone who would take the time to dig down and learn the industry, learn the challenges and learn the politics.
"She was the perfect person to do so," she added.
For Peoples-Stokes, legalizing marijuana embraced issues beyond personal freedom or recreational use. She has always maintained that her East Side district and its minority population bore the brunt of unfair drug enforcement efforts. Even when using the drug was largely decriminalized in 2019, she continued railing about past marijuana arrests that disproportionately affected minorities in neighborhoods like those she represents in the Assembly.
“For too long, communities of color have been the target of discriminatory criminal justice policies and have suffered serious consequences for the possession of small amounts of marijuana, while others were never arrested or charged," she said then, summarizing the intent behind her long drive for legalization.
All that got her nowhere, however, especially with Cuomo. But in 2021, timing was everything.
"In '19, when we really felt we were going to make it happen, the governor wouldn't budge," Peoples-Stokes recalled a few days ago. "He would not make the commitment, statutorily, of investing in the lives of the people suffering the consequences. So we went back to the caucus and just said no – we don't want to legalize marijuana just for the purpose of getting additional revenues in the state budget."
Marijuana took back burner status in 2020, she noted, when Covid-19 dominated everything. But after the death of a Black man last May under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, things changed. Finally, she said, legislators and voters alike seemed to hear what she had long held.
"This year, to be honest, racism became real for people," she said. "When you see in broad daylight a man getting killed by somebody who's supposed to be a public servant ... who was accused of having a counterfeit $20 bill, that makes a light go off for people. You could see the results of that by the thousands of protests that went on.
"I think that did resonate with the governor and some of our colleagues, quite frankly," she added.
Credit goes to Peoples-Stokes because she "was the change" through her ability to portray minority communities as victims, said Melissa Moore, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a drug law reform group that for years sought legalization.
"From the standpoint of justice, the way prohibition was enforced was incredibly damaging and it was time for change," Moore said. "She was deeply committed and would not accept the old deals that would not [recognize] social justice. The thing most evident about the majority leader was her utmost and complete integrity in making sure legalization would benefit the communities most affected."
Moore labeled that view Peoples-Stokes' "north star," guiding her in partnership with Sen. Liz Krueger of Manhattan in bridging various geographical and philosophical divides.
"They were incredible and dedicated women in joining forces and saying 'enough is enough' and it was time to turn the page in a way that was responsive and would provide restitution," she said. "It was one of the most inspiring things I've ever seen."
Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn takes issue with many aspects of the new law, but credits Peoples-Stokes with leading New York's effort to correct a host of racial inequities in marijuana enforcement.
"There is no question that over the last 50 years the number of individuals prosecuted for marijuana disproportionately affected communities of color," he said. "That's not opinion; that's fact."
That's why he and the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York opposed only parts of the new law, and not the overall legislation. He credits the majority leader with "graciously" heeding law enforcement's requests to restore misdemeanor status (from the proposed violation) for driving under the influence infractions.
But he worries that since the drug is now legal, police can't use it as an excuse to search cars they stop and prevent discovery of even more guns to be used in crimes.
"We prosecute 500 cases a year involving guns, mostly in the City of Buffalo, and I know that hundreds of these cases come about because a car is pulled over, police search the car and find a gun," Flynn said. "If we can't do those searches anymore, you will have lots more guns and people getting hurt. And that will have an influence on the East Side and West Side of Buffalo."
Timing was right
Republican Assemblyman Steve Hawley of Genesee County says he respects the majority leader and her successful effort to legalize pot. But any inequities he recognizes for his mostly rural district lie in more impaired driving and more traffic accidents. By voting "no," he feels he has also responded to his constituents.
"I was concerned about human health, human safety and the number of accidents that could cause death," he said. "I try to reflect my constituents. Whether it's my viewpoint or not is irrelevant."
But Savino, the Staten Island Democrat, said Peoples-Stokes and Krueger finally made the case among the Albany opponents who had always prevailed. As neighboring states and provinces legalized cannabis, she said New York's day of reckoning was "inevitable." But someone had to "speak to it," she said, and Peoples-Stokes appeared on the scene as the right person at the right time.
"It had to be someone, as we say in social work, who had the cultural competency to do so," Savino said.
The majority leader, meanwhile, credits timing more than anything else. The governor and Legislature came around, she said, because the country had moved beyond the politics of former President Donald J. Trump.
"He pushed racism and division in our faces almost every day," she said. "Most of the people who supported him liked that. But the rest said, 'Hey, something is wrong with this.' "
It takes a bit of goading to get Peoples-Stokes to acknowledge her role in passing the historic legislation, but she ultimately concedes it will rank as an important personal accomplishment.
"It's one of them," she said. "But I've still got a couple more to go."