Lawmaker hosts town hall on sex work, marijuana
by Benjamin Fang
Feb 12, 2020 | 925 views | 0 0 comments | 67 67 recommendations | email to a friend | print
As part of her series of issue-based town halls, State Senator Jessica Ramos invited residents and advocates to The Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights last week to discuss legalizing cannabis and decriminalizing sex work.

Both topics are currently under consideration in Albany, as lawmakers hammer out the details and build support to pass legislation this session.

Ramos said drugs and sex are issues that are often “swept under the rug in our community,” particularly from residents who complain that it “doesn’t look good” or don’t want their children being exposed to it.

But the common theme between the two topics, and the legislation addressing them, is harm reduction.

“What we want is to make sure all of our neighbors are safe,” Ramos said.

The state senator said New York has been trying to legalize marijuana for a long time. In the past few years, she said, Governor Andrew Cuomo has promised in major speeches that it would be accomplished.

“It’s never been a matter of if, it’s been a matter of when, and more importantly to me, how,” she said. “How is it that we’re creating a system that truly does benefit everyone?”

Last year, state lawmakers and the governor could not come to an agreement to legalize cannabis. Instead, legislators decriminalized marijuana possession under two ounces.

Ramos said the effort was important, but obviously did not go far enough. This year, Cuomo has his own proposal to legalize the drug, called the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act (CRTA).

The State Senate has introduced its version of the legislation, called the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), which is carried by Manhattan State Senator Liz Krueger and is championed by advocates.

According to Ramos, MRTA would still make possession over three ounces as a violation punishable by a fine. Unlicensed sales would still carry a criminal penalty.

The idea, the Queens lawmaker said, is that the state would issue licenses to people and companies involved in the growth, production, distribution and sale of cannabis.

“Largely where the state debate has been is how vertical or horizontal the business model is,” she said.

Ramos noted that large companies like MedMen, which last year opened up a retail store on 5th Avenue in midtown, are spending lots of money lobbying state officials to be able to control as much of the means of production and sale as possible.

She called the California-based, multi-million dollar company the “Apple of cannabis.”

Rather than set the terms to benefit companies like MedMen, state lawmakers are pushing for marijuana legalization to help communities of color that have been largely harmed by the war on drugs and mass incarceration policies.

“We want to make sure people who already know the business have a point of entry,” Ramos said. “And that we’re expunging records of those who have been mostly penalized for carrying, using and selling cannabis.”

Tiffany Caban, a public defender and former candidate for Queens district attorney, said in the panel that over 80 percent of people who are arrested for marijuana-related offenses are black or Latinx, and the majority are men.

She noted that the disproportionate arrests were made despite no real difference in cannabis consumption between white communities and those of color.

The “mass criminalization” that comes with over-policing marijuana use has implications on immigration, housing, health care and even education, she said.

“We have to think about what criminalization does to entire communities,” Caban said.

Anthony Posada, supervising attorney of the Community Justice Unit for the Legal Aid Society, said the main principles of marijuana legalization are racial justice, economic fairness and repairing past harms.

He noted that in New York City, there were years when police arrested 50,000 people annually for low-level possession.

“We need to understand the consequences for those people and prioritize them,” Posada said.

The benefit for New York lawmakers now is that 11 states have legalized recreational marijuana, and 21 states have medical marijuana, he said. Legislators can see what worked for other states, how much they invested in justice-impacted communities and how to prevent pitfalls.

In particular, advocates want the bill to include resources for incubators, low-interest loans, technical assistance and other ways for communities of color to access the cannabis market.

“The coalition is laser-focused on making sure the legacy communities are able to enter into it,” said Raybblin Vargas, communications coordinator for GreenWorker Cooperatives. “We know what the barriers are.”

Posada said if passed, MRTA would create a community grants reinvestment fund, which is overseen by a steering committee with appointed members. Nonprofits can apply for funding to help with education around drug use, youth and violence interruption programs.

The fund would also invest money in job placement, mental health and substance abuse programs, women’s health services and community banking.

“If you look at what the governor proposed, that doesn’t exist,” Posada said.

Ramos added that she wants the legislation to meet all cannabis demand so people don’t have to turn to a black market.

“We’re hoping to perfect this bill and let this be the answer to legalization,” she said.

For the sex work portion of the town hall, Ramos spoke about the four different models to think about the legal ramifications of sex work.

The first is the current model, which is criminalization, in which it is illegal to purchase or perform sex work. The second is legalization, where there are licenses, brothels, and third parties that engage in sex trafficking.

The third is the so-called “Nordic model,” in which selling sex work is decriminalized, but not buying sex. Ramos said that’s not a good model, in her opinion, because there’s no incentive for sex workers to be able to screen their clients.

“If something should happen, should the sex worker need to report violence to the authories, they’re out of luck,” she said. “They don’t necessarily have the means to contact the person, much less report them.”

Caban added that the Nordic model, which is used in places like Sweden, Norway, Iceland and France, creates unsafe conditions because it drives sex work underground. Decriminalizing sex work was a large component of Caban’s campaign for district attorney.

“They’re at the risk of sexual assault and state-sanctioned violence,” she said. “When you criminalize customers, it makes customers harass sex workers.”

The last and preferred model for lawmakers and the advocates in the room is the “Decrim” model, in which sex work is decriminalized for both the buyer and the seller.

Currently, only four state senators –– Ramos from Queens, Julia Salazar from Brooklyn, Robert Jackson from Manhattan and Luis Sepulveda from the Bronx –– are co-sponsors of legislation to decriminalize sex work in New York.

The Assembly version of the bill has eight supporters, including Assembly members Ron Kim and Catalina Cruz from Queens, and Feliz Ortiz from Brooklyn.

At the town hall, transgender advocates also shared their experiences facing discrimination, struggling to find housing and employment and, in some cases, ultimately turning to sex work to survive.

TS Candii, a black trans woman and former sex worker who is a member of the roup DeCrimNY, told her story of being thrown out of home at age 13, moving to New York and experiencing homelessness.

She said she began selling sex because she needed to eat, transition and survive.

“It fed me, it put clothes on my back,” Candii said. “It basically saved my life.

“I’m here to fight for our right to due process,” she added. “We have rights over our bodies.”

Joselyn Castillo, a member of Make the Road New York, said advocates have also been working on repealing the “Walking While Trans” statute. Trans people are often arrested for loitering because authorities believe they are engaging in sex work, she said.

Earlier this year, Cuomo announced his support for a repeal of the statute. The legislation has 24 co-sponsors in the State Senate and more than 40 supporters in the Assembly.

Jared Trujillo, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys and a steering committee member of DeCrimNY, said he expects a repeal of the Walking While Trans statute.

“Sex work is work in a real way,” said Trujillo, a former sex worker. “It’s criminalizing people working just to put food on the table. It’s something horrific about the paradigm we have.”

Another piece of legislation under consideration is Ramos’ bill to allow victims of trafficking to clear their records of any crimes, such as bribery or forgery, that were committed while they were being trafficked. Like the other two bills, this legislation is also currently in committee.

Ramos said that while she doesn’t want to “impose our morals on anyone,” they want the law to allow people to make decisions for their own bodies.

“We should respect people’s decisions over what to do with their bodies,” she said, “and make sure they can do it safely.”

The lawmaker acknowledged that her Queens district has a trafficking problem. But she said part of the reason why there hasn’t been solutions is because members of the NYPD’s Vice Squad were involved in a sex and gambling ring that came to light last year.

Another reason is that officials have never been able to distinguish trafficked sex workers with those who do it out of choice and circumstance, so neither side has received much help, she said.

“There is stuff we can do right now to protect people who do sex work,” Ramos said. “I want to make sure our district is leading.”
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