NY: In Arbor Hill, Anger Brews As Marijuana Attitudes Shift

Photo Credit: Bethany Bump

Charles “Obar” Robinson knows his name precedes him.

“Yes, one of those Robinsons,” he says, referring to his family’s long and bruised reputation in the city of Albany. They ran an illicit marijuana operation — they say it was small time, prosecutors said otherwise — and were convicted and sent to federal prison for it in the early 2000s.

Now, about a decade after his release from prison, Obar Robinson is seething at what he sees as hypocrisy by elected leaders and society in general. Marijuana for medical purposes is legal in 29 states. It’s been decriminalized in 13 states, including New York. And it’s fully legal and regulated — for recreational use and all — in nine states and Washington, D.C.

The tides have shifted, and New York appears to be on the cusp of full legalization as well, having commissioned a study this winter that will examine possible regulation. Neighboring states are already there or headed there. Canada just went there.

“What, is New York gonna be stupid?” is how Robinson characterizes the likelihood of legalization here.

The drug that a good chunk of society demanded — that people like Robinson and communities of color were disproportionately locked up for possessing or supplying — is already making heaps of money for white entrepreneurs and Wall Street investors, while communities like Albany’s Arbor Hill, West Hill and South End neighborhoods are still struggling to heal from a federal and state-sanctioned War on Drugs.

“I’m still paying for this,” Robinson said. “My whole life I’ve paid for it. Forty years of my life are gone for it.”

His was the overwhelming message in Arbor Hill Wednesday night, as Albany County District Attorney David Soares hosted the first of a series of public meetings to gather input on marijuana decriminalization and legalization. He will be traversing the county, heading to Berne on Monday, Guilderland on Wednesday, and Cohoes and Delmar the week after.

The purpose of the meetings are two-fold. First, until marijuana is fully legal in New York, he wants to know what kind of discretion communities in Albany County would like to see when it comes to marijuana arrests and prosecutions. Second, he wants communities, particularly those hard-hit by the war on drugs, to start speaking out now, so that if and when New York decides to legalize marijuana they ultimately have a say in that legislation.

“This is the greatest opportunity that I think will ever come down the pike for communities that have suffered the indignities of the war on pot and the war on drugs,” Soares said to a crowd of about two dozen people who showed up to public library branch in Arbor Hill on Wednesday. “This is the greatest opportunity for communities to seek and get longstanding relief.”

There is legislation pending in the state Assembly that would legalize, regulate and tax marijuana for recreational use among adults, and send portions of any revenue generated back into communities that have been hurt by draconian drug laws. Sponsored by Crystal Peoples-Stokes in the Assembly and Liz Krueger in the Senate, both Democrats, the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act remains stuck in committee and whether it advances depends almost entirely on the Republican-led Senate.

Soares warned the crowd that policymakers and investors may ultimately promise “window dressing” to communities like theirs in the form of one-off scholarships or bloc grants.

“I will assure you that if you don’t weigh in and your voices are not heard in (the Capitol), they will chop it up and allow the hedge fund managers to make all these wonderful little franchises around the state of New York without taking into consideration at all contributions and criminal justice reinvestment back into your communities,” he said.

His biggest concern, he said, is that if the illicit pot trade dries up and no legal job opportunities are there to take its place, “smart hustlers” are going to find other, more dangerous things to make up that lost revenue — like fentanyl, an opiate used to treat breakthrough pain in cancer patients that has spread like wildfire on the streets as a more potent alternative and supplement to heroin.

It’s also believed to be contributing to record numbers of overdose deaths. In 2016, two-thirds of the 63,600 drug overdose deaths in America were caused by opioids.

Community members on Wednesday said they would like to see a long-term, consistent revenue stream from marijuana profits come directly into their communities to support apprenticeships and job opportunities. They want marijuana convictions wiped from records, and shattered employment prospects rebuilt.

Marlon Anderson, a community activist and two-time mayoral contender, suggested the city and county send all the money it’s seized over the years from the illicit marijuana trade back into the community.

That’s precisely how Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy and Sen. George Amedore are proposing to fund an expansion of pre-arrest diversion programs around the state, which help low-level offenders whose crime was driven by underlying poverty, addiction or mental illness get help. A bill that passed the Assembly this week would authorize the use of such proceeds, known as civil asset forfeitures, for programs and create a dedicated funding stream.

Assemblyman John McDonald III, a co-sponsor of the bill, was at Wednesday’s meeting and suggested such a funding mechanism might be possible when it comes to marijuana regulation.

“We can’t forget the past and we need to make sure we put programs in place to assist and address these needs,” he said.

Not everyone appeared to be in favor of legalization. One woman who spoke out but declined to provide her name said the children at her granddaughter’s school often reek of marijuana, and she’s concerned about legalization leading to greater access and use among young people.

Until a decision is made at the state level, one resident said Soares should stand up immediately and declare he will stop prosecuting marijuana arrests. The children in her neighborhood are harassed daily, she said — slammed into cop cars and full-body searched “under the pretext of marijuana.”

Soares said he could not rush into that decision, and would use community input from the meetings to craft new policy for his office.

Albany County residents who are unable to attend an upcoming meeting can share their opinions in an online survey at www.albanycountyda.com.