New York tries to atone for drug laws that disproportionately hit Black and Latino people

ITV News Correspondent Rebecca Barry meets New Yorkers who were once jailed for selling cannabis but are now licensed to sell it

One of the first things that hits you as you walk through the streets of Manhattan is the smell: cannabis, it’s everywhere.

But New York is far from the first US state to legalise the recreational use of marijuana.

What’s striking about the legislation here is the belief that a drug, once seen as a social evil, can now be a means for social good - that it can right past wrongs.

On Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village, I visit a small, but hugely significant shop.

It's owned by Roland Conner, the first person with a criminal conviction for cannabis to open a licensed cannabis shop in New York. 

Roland Conner, the first person with a criminal conviction for cannabis to open a licensed cannabis shop in New York. Credit: ITV News

When he was younger the state arrested and imprisoned him for selling marijuana – now it’s encouraging him to do just that. 

Roland tells me: “When you get locked-up you carry the stigma of a convict. You can't really shake that. It makes it hard to get a job.”

To help redress the racial injustice of past prosecutions, those convicted of cannabis offences are now being given a head-start in New York’s legal industry, prioritised for shop licences.

“You want some type of justice" says Roland. "It’s a beautiful thing when the city or the government can come together to fix past wrongs.”

President Richard Nixon launched his 'War on Drugs' in 1971 Credit: ITV News

In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs”. New York was the first state to impose tough penalties for cannabis possession.

But over the decades, it disproportionately criminalised poor, mostly black and minority ethnic neighbourhoods. 

Black people in New York were 15 times more likely to get arrested for cannabis than white people over the last 30 years; Latinos were eight times more likely.

In the neighbourhood of Washington Heights, James Adames shows me where he grew up.

It was a childhood punctuated by police encounters, his first arrest for cannabis possession when he was just 16. Every sidewalk or alleyway triggers a memory.

“Across the street there was the first time I was arrested for marijuana. The police jumped out of their vehicle, put a gun in my face, stopped and frisked me.”

James Adames who was sentenced to six months at the notorious Rikers Island prison now has a license to sell cannabis. Credit: ITV News

He shows me the fifth floor apartment, where his mother, Anna, still lives.

As they look through photographs, she begins to cry.

In his 20s James was sentenced to six months at the notorious Rikers Island prison. 

But now there’s a sense of redemption for his tearful mum. Last month, he was awarded a licence for a cannabis dispensary and hopes to open his shop soon. 

“I feel liberated. Like a huge pain was lifted off my shoulders. It’s like I'm being reimbursed in life - like getting a second shot at life.”

James Adames with his mum Anna Credit: ITV News

Cannabis is big business, potentially worth more than a billion dollars a year in New York City. 

And 40% of the tax of revenues are set to be reinvested in neighbourhoods that have been disproportionately harmed by past drugs laws. 

Places like the Bronx, where I meet the woman leading this landmark legislation. 

Dasheeda Dawson grew up in east New York, witnessing the impact of the war on drugs and, like many, she still feels traumatised.

“I still have PTSD from it. I talk a lot about the trauma and the need to start the healing process, and legalisation is the start of that.”

After a corporate career, she says returning to her home city for this project feels like “a full circle moment.”

“I want us to be the number one global hub. I think we can because New York City is that for so many other things, fashion, money - why not cannabis?”

But there are currently only two licensed cannabis shops in the city. Yet hundreds of unlicensed ones, I saw them everywhere I went.

Some might feel this undermines the city’s goal of creating a tax-generating industry and, therefore, it’s ambition to atone for the past.

You can watch On Assignment on Thursday March 2 at 10.35pm

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