‘In other states that have established a legal marijuana market, large corporations with significant capital make up the bulk of the market share while BIPOC communities have seen little, if any, economic benefit from legalization. New York can create a more racially and economically equitable path.’

City Limits

It’s been five months since New York’s Marijuana, Regulation, and Taxation Act (MRTA) was passed, ending the prohibition on the consumption of marijuana in state law and creating opportunities for social equity. This was a monumental bill for communities of color that have experienced decades of harassment and arrests due to the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana prohibition; by legalizing marijuana consumption, state lawmakers finally committed to changing the failed prohibition policy that essentially criminalized our Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities. 

Additionally, the MRTA provides an enormous opportunity to create a strong and sustainable marijuana industry in BIPOC communities. For us at the East New York Community Land Trust (ENYCLT), we envision a thriving local marijuana industry rooted in racial justice and collective wealth building and decision-making by demanding public investment in the creation of a retail dispensary to be owned by the ENYCLT and operated and leased by a worker-cooperative. 

For the last two and a half years, based on NYPD data, East New York has seen an average of 11 arrests and 141 summonses related to marijuana for every quarter. To put this in perspective, East New York has been consistently in the top quarter of the city’s 74 police precincts in marijuana arrests and in the top five precincts for marijuana summonses during that period.

Although arrests dropped substantially in the community following New York State’s decriminalization of marijuana possession in 2019, summonses stood relatively unaltered. The number of recent marijuana summonses and arrests reveals the concrete harms that prohibition has had on East New York. Yet, these harms can be addressed. Specifically, we envision a worker-owned cooperative retail dispensary as a way of turning the page on the racialized history of marijuana criminalization here because it supports wealth accumulation, community-decision making, and an alternative form of sustainable ownership in East New York.

For this vision to become reality, policymakers need to commit attention and resources. While we know that no amount of funding or support can fully address the harms inflicted upon the East New York community, we also know that the best approach centers the voices and experiences of community members. 

Supporting Wealth Accumulation: City investment in ENYCLT’s vision for a worker-owned cooperative retail dispensary will acknowledge the historical harm caused by the racist prohibition and criminalization of marijuana possession as evidenced by the data. In addition, the city will be taking a concrete step forward to creating space for a social equity applicant, an applicant from a community disproportionately impacted by enforcement of cannabis prohibition, to economically thrive. The dispensary would be an investment in sustainable cooperative jobs that would empower workers from East New York and allow them to build wealth in a retail industry that can be exploitative for workers. Rather than create an opportunity for worker exploitation, a common feature of the typical employer-employee model, the ENYCLT is working to ensure that this space is managed and operated by worker-owners. Why? Simply put, collective ownership and democratic governance give all workers a voice which results in higher salaries, more stable employment, and keeps community wealth in the community. 

Facilitating Community-Decision Making: On March 17, the city released a Request for Information (RFI) that would seek to “explore new models of community wealth building and ownership through shared equity (SE)”. Members of the ENYCLT collaborated to respond to the RFI with a proposal for how to bring a worker-cooperative operated retail dispensary to East New York. Our RFI called on the city to transfer vacant, city-owned land in East New York to ENYCLT or acquire a private site and dispose of it to the ENYCLT. 

Our vision relies on inclusive, democratic, community decision making in three main ways. First, ENYCLT would own the land, partner with a developer for the construction of the dispensary and lease it to a worker cooperative. Through the CLT land ownership model, land use is governed democratically by the East New York residents that make its membership and will remain affordable in perpetuity. Second, our proposal leases the facility to a worker-owned cooperative because we value the collaborative and inclusive character of worker cooperatives, especially as it relates to shared equity and the day-to-day governance of the workplace. Third, the selection of the worker-owned cooperative dispensary will be done in a collective, collaborative, and transparent manner. ENYCLT will work to form a steering committee that consists of invested community stakeholders and leaders who will collectively select a cooperative via a collaborative process. In short, collective decision making will be centered at all phases of this project: before the leasing and during the construction of the dispensary, once the dispensary is officially leased to the cooperative, and with the renewal of a lease.

Offering an Alternative Form of Sustainable Ownership: In other states that have established a legal marijuana market, large corporations with significant capital make up the bulk of the market share while BIPOC communities have seen little, if any, economic benefit from legalization. New York can create a more racially and economically equitable path through public investment in projects such as our worker-owned cooperative dispensary, but it must be done prior to the initial wave of first sales (and the collection of taxes) to mitigate against monopolistic strong-holds from forming.     

The MRTA is “based on the recognition that New York’s existing marijuana policies have failed to protect the welfare of our communities.” It is for this reason that the MRTA directs 40 percent of the funds generated by the marijuana sales tax to grants for communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition. Our RFI proposal builds on the objectives of the MRTA but goes further by demanding more investment from our partners in government. If communities like East New York are to turn the page on the war on drugs, our government must prevent the legal market from enriching corporate monopolies and help us make our RFI proposal a reality. In 2016, as part of the ENY rezoning plan, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to invest $16 million to create a projected 4,000 new jobs within the East New York Industrial Business Zone (IBZ). Right now, not one of those new jobs is accounted for in the IBZ. The city should be ready to invest in a social justice model that can and will create quality, cooperative jobs that will be accounted for.

Albert Scott and Boris Santos are residents of East New York. Scott is the president of the East New York Community Land Trust and Santos is the treasurer.