Recently Enacted Marijuana Reforms Represent Significant Racial Equity Advancement for the People of New York State.


This week’s enactment of the 2021 Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) stands as a pivotal moment for racial justice and community restoration in the State of New York. After years of working in partnership with the Drug Policy Alliance and the statewide StartSMART Coalition to advance the MRTA, Open Buffalo is proud to welcome its passage, and galvanized to ensure accountability and adherence to the bill’s justice-driven provisions.

For too long, New York and its municipalities have disproportionately targeted black and brown people for cannabis enforcement and incarceration, under the auspices of the War on Drugs and public safety. Passage of the MRTA, which contains directives for restoring the rights of many of those swept up in the war and economic investment in those communities, is an important step in the right direction.

Franchelle Parker, Open Buffalo’s Executive Director, offered the following reflection on this week’s news:

“As a child, I experienced firsthand the devastating impact the War on Drugs was having on communities of color. As a student leader/activist, New York State drug policy reform became the first issue I worked on. As a community, we have learned that legalization is important, but it must be coupled with equitable strategies to help repair the harm done to poor communities and communities of color during this unjust war.”

“The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) incorporates racial and economic justice that begins to right the wrongs of the past and present and encompasses the necessary visionary strategies to give hope and opportunity to our young people. MRTA begins to address both the racial and the economic inequalities that plague Western New York by calling for direct investments back into the communities that have been disproportionately harmed by biased and unjust policing and incarceration policies.”

Looking Back

Since 2017, Open Buffalo has prioritized a cannabis justice agenda on the local and state levels in response to unequal marijuana arrests and disinvestment in communities of color. Having previously served as regional organizer of the statewide We Rise to Legalize campaign, Open Buffalo has educated and mobilized the voices of hundreds of residents from Western New York to support marijuana legalization that emphasizes rebuilding communities ravaged by racially biased drug enforcement practices.

Amid its cannabis reform work, Open Buffalo previously gathered more than 1,300 signatures in a campaign that called on Mayor Byron Brown and the Buffalo Police Department to de-prioritize arrests for low-level marijuana possession and designate it as the city’s Lowest Law Enforcement Priority (LLEP), leading to the mayor adopting the policy in February 2019. Later in 2019, Open Buffalo welcomed the passage of statewide reforms that further decriminalized marijuana possession and provided a pathway for thousands of New Yorkers with nonviolent, low-level marijuana convictions to have their criminal records expunged.

2021 and Beyond 

This year, graduates of Open Buffalo’s Emerging Leaders program launched the Community Restoration Project (CRP). This project is designed to bring economic and racial justice to black and brown communities through three key state legislative reforms: cannabis legalization; “clean slate” legislation to create a system of automatic criminal records expungement; and progressive tax reform. To date, the CRP’s public petition has collected 1,500 signatures of support. This week’s MRTA passage represents a major advancement for the project.

Cheney Brockington, an Open Buffalo Emerging Leaders graduate who has taken a leadership role in the CRP, said the following this week:

“Through the continued efforts of Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, Sen. Elizabeth Krueger, and hundreds of advocates for equitable justice, the MRTA was officially passed in New York State. Legalization, alongside reform efforts to end continued wrongs perpetuated by the War on Drugs, is a major win for New Yorkers, many of whom have been affected by this 90-year prohibition. We at Open Buffalo celebrate this major accomplish, while also recognizing reform efforts must go beyond legalization.

“As a supporter of the Community Restoration Project, I ask that we collectively stay committed to seeking continued expungement of records, as well as well-deserved progressive tax reform. We are grateful to continued supporters, advocates, and community members who stand behind this crucial legislation.”

During the remaining months of this year’s state legislative session, Open Buffalo and the Community Restoration Project will shift focus to advancing the two remaining policy planks – clean slate and tax reform – as well as public awareness and engagement around the implementation of the MRTA. Learn more about the Community Restoration Project here.