The legalization of recreational cannabis in New York was the result of a long public debate among state lawmakers. Although legalization has been a bone of contention, many agree that Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes has undoubtedly been the champion of the legislation that will regulate the cannabis industry in New York.
Peoples-Stokes (D) is an assemblywoman serving Buffalo's 141st Assembly District and the majority leader of the New York State Assembly. Born and bred in Buffalo, Peoples-Stokes has been an integral part of ensuring that minority- and women-owned businesses have a fair chance of obtaining state contracts. She has gained a reputation for being a strong advocate who puts people and principles before politics.
Her struggle to legalize cannabis is the most unmistakable evidence of the efforts she put into the legalization campaign. Peoples-Stokes began the campaign to legalize recreational cannabis in New York in 2013 when she introduced a bill along with Senator Liz Krueger to the New York State Assembly to legalize the sale, regulation, and taxation of cannabis. However, the bill failed to get enough support to pass in both chambers. But six years later, she successfully sponsored a law in 2019 to decriminalize possession and allow for the expungement of minor cannabis convictions from New Yorkers' criminal records.
In March 2021, Peoples-Stokes played a significant role in the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) introduced by Liz Krueger (D) which legalized the adult use of cannabis in March 2021. The act included a goal of 50% of licenses going to equity applicants and the dedication of 40% of cannabis revenues being reinvested into disenfranchised communities of color in New York State.
Following legalization, Peoples-Stokes launched an equity-focused political action committee (EquityPAC) to elect candidates who support cannabis reform. The committee is centered on three policy pillars: cannabis, education, and the environment. She has repeatedly emphasized the need to put equity front and center as the state prepares to implement retail cannabis sales.
For Peoples-Stokes, legalizing cannabis goes beyond the freedom to consume it for recreational use. She has always been vocal about how the minority population has suffered from prohibition policies that disproportionately and negatively impact vulnerable communities.
"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. By decriminalizing marijuana use in New York once and for all, we are ending this repressive cycle that unfairly targets certain communities," she said in a statement following the legalization bill signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
When she discussed legalization in New York with the nonprofit public-interest cannabis advocacy group NORML's representatives in 2019, she envisioned the legal industry as an opportunity for small businesses to enter the market, highlighting that no one wants big mega-businesses in New York State. "We see this as an opportunity for our citizens, for our farmers, for our people who have been disenfranchised, as well as the mass incarcerated and for small businesses—[it] seems to work well with the beer industry—and we hope that it will work as well for the legal cannabis industry," she said.
According to Melissa Moore, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a drug law reform group, Peoples-Stokes "was the change" through her ability to portray minority communities as victims.
"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," she said in an interview with Buffalo News.
Following the legalization in March, Peoples-Stokes hosted an expungement clinic at Gerard Place in Buffalo to help people with prior low-level cannabis convictions.
"It's important to do it now, in light of the fact that now the product that they were incarcerated for and [have] a record for is now a legal product. So if there are opportunities for people to make a lot of money, and I'm sure some people will, we should not have other people who are still carrying the baggage of a felony on their record that prohibits their ability to move forward in their lives," Peoples-Stokes said in an interview with the NBC-affiliated WGRZ TV station.
The clinic aims to explain automatic expungement, provide each client with a full explanation of the law and the right to request the destruction of their conviction records, and assist clients who wish to request destruction to complete the necessary application accurately.
Peoples-Stokes's role in passing the historic legislation resulted from longtime advocacy for the decriminalization and legalization of cannabis with a particular focus on the community she represents.
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