Put Local Marijuana Money Into Reparations Fund For Blacks, Amherst Advocates Say

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2022/05/30/put-local-marijuana-money-into-reparations-fund-for-blacks-amherst-advocates-say/

Reparations activists are pushing the town council of Amherst to put 100 percent of local marijuana tax revenue in a fund for black residents.

The proposal comes from the African Heritage Reparation Assembly, which was formed as an advisory committee by the Amherst Town Council in June 2021 to develop a plan for reparations.

Reparations is a proposal to use public funds for black people to make up for slavery and discrimination.

Alexis Reed, a member of the Assembly, spoke at a virtual Amherst Town Council meeting on May 16, urging the council to move ahead with the plan “lest we continue to be vehicles for white supremacy.”

“You can decide if cannabis will remain an asset to white folks and a liability to black folks,” Reed said.

State voters legalized recreational marijuana in November 2016. The state legislature subsequently approved rules for sales and taxes. The state collects a 10.75 percent excise tax on top and a 6.25 sales tax.

The local option excise tax is up to 3 percent. Town officials projected the tax in the town budget to bring in $190,000 to the general fund of Amherst during the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. State law does not require that the money be earmarked for a particular purpose.

Of the Assembly’s seven voting members, the town council requires that six of them be black residents, “at least two of whom are current or former members of elected bodies in Amherst.”

Town Councilor and Assembly member Michele Miller, a white woman, sent a memo to council members on May 11 reminding the council of the proposal, which was originally made on November 16, 2021.

In the memo, Miller said that the Assembly did not receive an answer.

“While the Town Manager or Town Council is not obligated to approve any budget request made by a Town committee or individual resident, failing to respond to requests made by People of Color is a pattern the Town has historically exhibited and committed to changing,” Miller said in the memo.

In her statement of roughly 628 words during the town council meeting on May 16, Miller spent almost a third of it talking about the recent mass-shooting in Buffalo. The shooting, which occurred on May 14, involved a mentally-ill white supremacist shooting 10 black people dead.

Miller used the incident to urge the council to push the proposal forward.

Miller co-chairs “Reparations for Amherst,” a non-government organization “focused on reparations for slavery and post-slavery anti-Black racism in Amherst.”

The cannabis tax is specifically sought after because of reported disparities in enforcement between white people and black people when marijuana was illegal.

Amilcar Shabazz, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a member of the African Heritage Reparation Assembly, also spoke at the town council meeting on May 16 supporting the proposal.

“The materials we’ve looked at on the AHRA concerning the Cannabis Control Commission has included Amherst as a city in which there is a record of disparity back in the days when marijuana was illegal and, therefore, reflecting a clear need for looking at this issue from a reparative justice standpoint,” Shabazz told the council.

The Cannabis Control Commission is a state agency that oversees legal marijuana sales in the state. In a 2018 report titled “Guidance for Identifying Areas of Disproportionate Impact,” the commission found 29 communities that experienced a disproportionate impact of cannabis law enforcement. One of them is Amherst.

The commission describes areas of “disproportionate impact” as “geographic areas in Massachusetts [with] historically disproportionately higher drug-policy enforcement and lower socio-economic status due to marijuana prohibition and the War on Drugs.” An example is more black people than white people going to prison for crimes involving marijuana.

A theme in the speeches on May 16 was the harm perpetuated in Amherst against the town’s black residents.

“Will we together send the message loud and clear to our black neighbors, business owners, teachers, students, and children that we recognize the harms that we have caused and continue to cause and that the ways in which our white residents and overall municipality has directly benefited from the mass incarceration and social control of black Amherst residents?” asked Reed.

Heather “Hala” Lord, a former member of the Amherst School Committee, and a member of the African Heritage Reparation Assembly, also spoke in favor of the proposal.

Like Miller, Lord began her address with reference to the shooting in Buffalo, comparing the incident to Amherst.

“Although we have not had a mass shooting in Amherst, black bodies have been under assault since before the incorporation of this town in 1759,” said Lord.

Lord said that white people are currently profiting from cannabis while black people are being oppressed.

“Now that the face of the seller of Cannabis changes it is legitimized and people are making millions without any obstacle or denial that many black folk are still navigating. This state and town still have beloveds incarcerated and/or denied access to assistance for the very thing that others are profiting greatly from,” Lord said.

Near the end of her speech, Lord said that earmarking the money could never bring justice but that “it is an important step toward righting the wrongs, healing, and becoming the town I know we can be, and that I believe we want to be.”

The town council established a Reparations Stabilization Fund in the town budget in June 2021.

A plan for how the money will be used (besides the general category of “reparations”) has yet to be developed. Shabazz told the town council that the plan would be before the council in “about a year’s time.” Until then, the money will remain in a savings account.

Miller made a motion on May 16 to refer the proposal to the town’s Finance Committee, of which Miller is a member. The Finance Committee reviews and makes recommendations to the town council on proposals to spend public funds in Amherst.

The Council voted unanimously in favor of the motion to seek recommendations from the Finance Committee, with a deadline of July 18.

Amherst is a town of about 39,000 in western Massachusetts that hosts three colleges:  the flagship campus of the University of Massachusetts; Amherst College; and Hampshire College. The town has a college student population of 18,854

Amherst’s non-college-student population is 20,409. Black people make up 4.4 percent of it.

Joe Biden topped Donald Trump in the November 2020 presidential election in Amherst by a margin of 90 to 7 percent.


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