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People Convicted of Drug Offenses Face Hurdles To Get Pot Licenses

Anytime the police approached the Bronx, N.Y., street where Hector Bonilla used to hang out, his friends would toss their marijuana on the ground. The police would pin the drugs on whomever was closest, Bonilla said. That is how he ended up with two convictions for marijuana possession in early 2000 for weed he maintains was not his. Bonilla, 42, a taxi driver, said his criminal record haunted him for years and made getting work difficult. “Now, over 20 years later, it’s my free ticket to this,” he said, pointing to a laptop screen. Bonilla was applying for a license to open one of New York’s first dispensaries to sell recreational cannabis legally. The four-year licenses are reserved for business owners who have been convicted of marijuana-related offenses in a New York court, and will allow them to sell cannabis as early as this year, the New York Times reports.

The licensing effort aims to atone for the damage inflicted during the war on drugs, which has been criticized for targeting communities of color and focusing on drug use as a crime and not a public health issue. Despite similar levels of use across races, Black and Latino residents have been swept up on low-level marijuana charges at higher rates than their white peers. Lawmakers legalized cannabis last year with a focus on social equity to address past harms and eliminate hurdles that prevent some people from accessing opportunities. There are growing concerns that the licensing process has been more difficult than expected and left eligible applicants without support. About 500 applications had been submitted by Sunday. Hundreds of ineligible people have been turned away, but so have dozens more who did qualify and needed help navigating the state’s online portal. State lawmakers allocated $50 million to launch an investment fund that aims to draw money from the private sector and provide applicants with turnkey properties and start-up loans.

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