Marijuana users in New York can finally breathe. New York became the fifteenth state in America to legalize marijuana. This marks a significant change: formerly, the use of cannabis was authorized only for debilitating diseases such as cancer, AIDS, and epilepsy. The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation act will allow individuals 21 and over to possess up to three pounds of cannabis and sustain up to three marijuana plants in their home. The state is also allocating 43% of profits garnered from the distribution of marijuana towards minority groups in an attempt at reparations. The state will implement a new program that will issue licenses to distributors and allow them to sell cannabis to retailers.
The program will prioritize minorities, as communities of color are cannibalized by the system. In 2018, The New York Times found that Black people were arrested on minor marijuana charges at eight times the rate of white, non-Hispanic in the city of New York. They also discovered Hispanic people were arrested at five times the rate of white people. New York is the first state to implement a form of financial reparations for marijuana-related charges.
As early as 1914, New York sanitary laws included cannabis in their list of banned drugs. Prior to the enactment of the Uniform Narcotic Drug Act in 1932 and the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, national policies banning marijuana ceased to exist. These laws were marred by racism: a doctor at the Manhattan Detention complex advocated for the rehabilitation rather than arrest of marijuana “addicts,” and identified jazz players who often used cannabis before their performances in his argument. New York continued to wage war against marijuana users throughout the 20th century: in 1951, 41 000 pounds of marijuana were destroyed. John E. Gleason, the Sanitation Department General Inspector formed the “White Wing Squad,” and their purpose was to crack down on pot farms. The history of marijuana in New York is consumed by corruption.
The bill will also expunge criminal records for those who were convicted of possession of marijuana. Still, the question remains: are monetary reparations sufficient? Imprisonment can be traumatic. There are currently no mental health services in place to help people deal with the unique consequences of imprisonment and structural racism. Black people are charged with possession of marijuana at higher rates than their white counterparts. Mass incarceration hinders Black men: it affects their mental health. Black men who experience imprisonment are 14 times more likely to experience depression than free Black men. Previously, New Yorkers could face up to a year in prison for low-level charges related to possession of marijuana.
The outcome of imprisonment can be stifling: the time separated from loved ones takes a toll on a jailed individual’s well-being. They lose their relationships with many people and the loss of genuine human connection seeps through every interaction. As a result, inmates experience feelings of profound loneliness. Imprisonment also strips individuals of their sense of identity. The prison environment is also extremely degrading: the quality of food, shelter, and the treatment by prison guards all culminate into a mind-numbing experience.
Many people in jail are also exposed to various forms of physical and verbal violence. Both factors lead to anxiety and depression and inmates have no way of enduring their situation: there are barriers to receiving adequate care for these enfeebling experiences. Many are left to fend for themselves; mental health services are often isolated from the rest of the world because of costs. 60% of youth with major depression did not receive any mental health treatment in 2017-2018. People cite lack of insurance and cost of care as their main reasons for not receiving care: majority are in a precarious situation. This leads to a tumultuous situation and a continued cycle of depression and mental illness. Policymakers continue to neglect mental health at both the national and state level: people whose lives have changed fundamentally because they were arrested for the possession of marijuana have not been fully compensated.
The American legal system is influenced by indigenous views of restorative justice. The indigenous view of restorative justice centers the victim and equity. The meaning of social reparations includes community: society should be involved in the victim’s healing. I believe this includes mental health. True equality for the victim (in this case, those jailed for the possession of marijuana) can not manifest unless they can cope with what they endured in jail. They are owed freedom from their thoughts, anguish, and worry. Indigenous healing includes spiritual, emotional, communal, and mental well-being and our justice system should continue to evolve, and our meaning of justice should expand to be truly holistic.
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