The problem with arguing over semantics is that by the end of what is usually overwrought dialogue, even the most sensible onlookers will walk away thinking, what a colossal waste of time this was for everyone involved.
This was my immediate reaction to the overreaction to New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon’s position that legalization of cannabis could serve as a form of reparations for Black folks, a.k.a. those majorly impacted by the futile “War on Drugs.” Speaking at the NYC Cannabis Parade held earlier this month, the former Sex and the City star claimed, “Arresting people–particularly people of color–for cannabis is the crown jewel in the racist war on drugs and we must pluck it down. We must expunge people’s records; we must get people out of prison.”
In a follow-up interview with Forbes, Nixon elaborated on this stance, and subsequently, stoked a needless controversy. “Arresting people—particularly people of color—for cannabis is the crown jewel in the racist war on drugs and we must pluck it down,” Nixon explained again. “We [must] prioritize them in terms of licenses. It's a form of reparations.”
Soon after Nixon's remarks, the clapbacks rolled in.
Enter: Reverend Al Sharpton, who noted that while he was for marijuana legalization, it was not “reparations.” Moreover, the Black Lives Matter chapter of Greater New York posted a statement on Facebook asserting that Nixon's comments "does a disservice to our community for her to play into harmful stereotypes of African-Americans as drug users and dealers." They went on to add, "It does an even greater disservice to the enduring consequences of both slavery and Jim Crow and the inequities these systems of oppression perpetuated to claim that legalizing marijuana would somehow erase that experience."
More recently, a group of Black pastors released a statement to further admonish the actress and activist. Releasing the statement exclusively to the New York Daily News, the group of pastors said in a letter directed to Nixon that her “comments make clear that you have no idea of the history and meaning behind the reparations debate in this country.” Not to be outdone, the letter went on to say Nixon’s comments “did a disservice to Black people who have fought for centuries for equal justice and basic human rights.”
As the Daily noted, the men behind the letter were: Dr. Johnnie Green, pastor of Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem and president of Mobilizing Preachers and Community, Dr. Carl Washington Jr., pastor of New Mount Zion Baptist Church in Harlem, and Rev. Troy DeCohen, pastor of Mt. Vernon Heights Congregational Church and head of Westchester's United Black Clergy.
They also called for an apology. Respectfully, I hope she never gives them one. I personally don’t think she said anything wrong, though I appreciate her efforts to clarify any misgivings about her statement.
In an op-ed posted for Cassius, Nixon reflected on her statement, writing, “Eighty percent of New Yorkers arrested for marijuana possession are Black or Latino, even as white people use the drug at the same rate. We simply have to stop putting people of color in prison for something that white people do with impunity.”
She then cited former Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s announcement that he was “joining the board of a marijuana cultivation and distribution corporation and would lobby on behalf of an industry hitting $10 billion in sales” as a particular note of hypocrisy given Boehner has long been anti-drug and has long supported policies that “devastated communities of color during the war on drugs.”
And as if further proving that she’s indeed with the shits, Nixon quoted The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander in a conversation at the Drug Policy Alliance, who also noted that white men are on the verge of making a fortune for something Black kids have been locked up for. “I think we have to be willing, as we’re talking about legalization, to also start talking about reparations for the war on drugs, how to repair the harm caused,” Alexander said.
As others like City Lab’s Brentin Mock have noted, there are Black people who have echoed Cynthia Nixon’s sentiments. Like, for example, former NAACP executive director and current Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous, who, while delivering the keynote speech at the National Cannabis Policy Summit in Washington, D.C. in April, expressed similar grievances about far too many Black people being imprisoned for using or selling marijuana.
In theory, I suppose I could understand why some may have taken issue with Nixon’s use of the term “reparations” had it been used within the context of slavery. However, she didn’t. She specifically said a “form of reparations.” I interpreted that in the context of a kind of reparations for the “War on Drugs” because that’s what she was talking about. Had she mentioned slavery or the Jim Crow era, I would understand the calls for a history pop quiz, but again, she didn’t, so what is the point of any of this?
It feels like many of her critics are guilty of not only misreading her remarks but clinging to an antiquated attitude about cannabis. Like this idea that we dare not allow marijuana dispensaries “in our communities.” Why not? Cannabis has numerous health benefits; it’s not merely just to get high. Grow up.
Meanwhile, as Nixon and plenty of people have stated, whether you use cannabis or not, the reality is there is an obvious shift happening and marginalized people are being largely excluded from it. There are Black folks that have made strides in the cannabis industry, but not nearly enough. So is Nixon wrong to say that those have been penalized most for marijuana use ought to be given priority for licensing and the opportunities that come with it? Do we not want more Black women like Amber Senter, Hope Wiseman, Mary Pryor, Tonya Rapley, Charlese Antoinette, and others?
I don’t know what will come of Cynthia Nixon’s bid for governor, but what I have seen thus far is someone who rightfully pays attention to the strongest supporters of the Democratic Party. I know some have questioned if it’s pandering, but all politicians pander; it’s just about time a Democrat panders to us.
To me, her comments at the NYC Cannabis Parade made as much sense to me as her proposed housing plan does. She seems to get it in ways most pols do not. I’d rather focus on what she’s saying exactly and holding her to that if she becomes successful with her political ambitions as opposed to inserting my own imagined commentary to create a debacle that has been pointless or “dumb” as others have deemed it.