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Marijuana legalization supporters to hold town hall 

New York lawmakers are the closest they've ever been to legalizing recreational cannabis.

Right now they're considering two different proposals that would allow adults to possess and use cannabis in various forms. One comes from Governor Andrew Cuomo, who included it in his executive budget proposal for the first time ever this year. The other, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, was introduced by Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Senator Liz Krueger for the fourth consecutive session.

Metro Justice is holding a town hall on marijuana legalization from 6 to 8 p.m. March 15 at Visual Studies Workshop, 31 Prince Street, where a three-person panel will discuss the differences between the two bills, as well as the overall importance of ending cannabis prohibition in New York. The event is also sponsored by Rochester Democratic Socialists of America, 1199SEIU, Rochester VOCAL-NY, ROCitzen, Citizen Action of New York, and Roc NORML.

The town hall is meant to serve two purposes, says Mohini Sharma, leader organizer for Metro Justice and one of the panel speakers. It's meant to give the people most impacted by marijuana criminalization – particularly people of color and low-income communities – a chance to learn about the legalization proposals and to ask questions about them, she says.

The other two panelists are Natalie Sheppard, a Rochester school board member, and Melissa Moore, deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance of New York.

The group will discuss, among other topics, the difference between legalization and decriminalization; why marijuana legalization is a racial, worker, and gender justice issue; the public health benefits and drawbacks of legalization; the economic impacts of ending cannabis prohibition; and what it would take to build an equitable and diverse cannabis industry in New York. A question and answer session will follow.

But the town hall is also meant to encourage people from communities most impacted by cannabis criminalization to join the push for legalization, Sharma says. Metro Justice is looking for people to work with its Criminal Justice Committee and it's also looking for people to attend a cannabis legalization lobbying day in Albany on March 27, she says.

"We're hoping that this is the beginning of building a grassroots movement of impacted people to have drug policies that actually lift up their communities rather than incarcerate them," Sharma says.

Most of the organizations sponsoring the town hall are part of the Start SMART NY campaign. (SMART stands for Sensible Marijuana Access through Regulated Trade.) The campaign supports the Legislature's Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) over Cuomo's proposal, and they have several reasons for doing it.

That proposal has been around longer than the governor's, and it's been vetted and tweaked; social justice activists and legalization advocates prefer it. They believe the MRTA emphasizes small business and that it does a better job of addressing the damage that cannabis prohibition inflicted on communities of color.

Both the MRTA and the governor's proposal layout ways that people convicted of marijuana-related offenses can revisit their sentences. But the MRTA provides a way to expunge people's records, which Cuomo's plan doesn't, Sharma says.

The MRTA would direct half of the tax revenue generated from cannabis sales back into community-based programs, such as adult education, job training, after-school programs, and re-entry services. Cuomo's plan contains no such provision, Sharma says. It also sets aside funding for drug treatment programs and campaigns aimed at preventing opioid abuse and overdoses. And it designates a quarter of the tax revenue for school funding.

In recent weeks, Cuomo aides have talked publicly about using cannabis tax revenue to help fund the New York City subway system.

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