Social justice fuels fight for legal pot

Apr 2, 2021
Illustration by Jacob Walsh

Cedric Cotton was 14 when he fell in with the wrong crowd. He left his mother’s house, dropped out of school, and started slinging bags of weed on the streets of Rochester.

Like many dealers, he built a criminal record and served stints in jail on a variety of charges. Every time he was released and contemplated going straight, he found himself trapped in the same cycle: further from finishing school, finding a job, and ditching dealing. With each new charge was a new obstacle to building a better life for himself.

So he stuck with it. He felt he had no choice.

New York State is on a path to legalizing recreational marijuana. Governor Cuomo says the time has come to allow adult use, regulated by New York State, and benefiting communities that have been disproportionately affected by the so-called "War on Drugs."

So what would legal cannabis look like in this state? And what should it look like? Our guests:


The city of Rochester will no longer test job candidates for THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

City Council approved legislation Tuesday that, effective immediately, removed THC as a chemical tested for during pre-employment drug screenings. The city will continue testing for other drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines.

Potential hires for certain positions where safety is a concern -- police officers, for example -- will still be tested for THC.

Governor Andrew Cuomo started the year 2019 with a strong message to legalize recreational marijuana. While the state did not pass legalization measures, certain amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized. WXXI’s Noelle Evans and Juan Vazquez look back at changes to state laws around marijuana possession this past year, and what those changes means going forward.


With support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and many members of the state legislature, 2020 could be the year when New York legalizes the adult use of recreational marijuana.

But the issue has become complicated by a widespread lung ailment linked to vaping. 

A measure to legalize cannabis for adults was proposed in 2019, as part of the state budget. It did not make it into the final spending plan, and it failed to win enough support to pass as a standalone bill in the state Senate.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday signed a bill into law that further decriminalizes marijuana possession in New York state. The law ends criminal prosecution for possession of up to 2 ounces of cannabis.

The action comes on a day when the governor also signed new gun control measures into law. 

Under the law, possession of up to 1 ounce of the drug would be punishable by a $50 fine. Having up to 2 ounces of cannabis would bring a $200 fine. The measure also creates a mechanism to expunge the records for some past marijuana convictions.

Members of the New York State Assembly join us to discuss what did – and did not – get done in the recent legislative session. We talk about jobs, marijuana, health care, climate, the Rochester City School District, and more.

Our guests are Assemblymember Harry Bronson and Assemblymember Mark Johns.

At a conference on marijuana hosted by the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, law enforcement officials acknowledged that current laws around the drug are not enforced equally.

“We want to treat everybody equally, obviously, and we’re not doing that,” said Monroe County Undersheriff Korey Brown, speaking on a panel about legal issues surrounding marijuana. “So we need to make a change.”

Brown said people of color and people who live in impoverished neighborhoods often bear the brunt of policing, especially when it comes to marijuana.

WATCH: Looking at the effects of legalized pot in New York

Apr 11, 2019

To legalize or not to legalize, that’s the big question in the Empire State when it comes to recreational marijuana. While the deal was a no-go in the recently passed state budget, proponents say it will happen and we all need to get ready for it. But organizations who oppose the legalization of pot are expected to use the delay to try to prevent the legislation from passing. On this special edition of Need to Know, the WXXI News team examines how cannabis could potentially affect our community, including jobs, health care, and the economy.


With recreational marijuana on the horizon, how could New Yorkers expect the culture to change?

The push for cannabis regulation and prohibition began in the early 1900s, and really took off in the 1930s.

Nick Robertson, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Rochester Institute of Technology, said this was due in large part to propaganda like the film “Reefer Madness.”

"If you smoke marijuana, you were gonna go crazy," he said. "You were going to do horrible things, it would destroy your life, and ever since then, there’s been a stigma attached."