The Third "Flower City:" How Legal Marijuana Can Culturally and Economically Benefit Our Community

Picture the following: a VW bus appears outside your favorite bar on a summer’s night, offering scentless cookies infused with the essence of marijuana - enough to give you a mellow vibe for bedtime, or perhaps a stimulating cerebral buzz to keep your night going.

Or: your neighborhood community garden now features tall, verdant marijuana plants. You pick a handful of potent buds, and put them in your basket alongside tomatoes, onions and basil. Maybe you’ll use the cannabis to infuse some olive oil later - perfect for a pasta that can elevate your mind and body while satisfying your stomach and palate.

Still further: the gorge of High Falls, vacant and bereft of purpose, is now teeming with marijuana plants, freely accessible to the community. After a couple of brews on a pleasant evening at Genesee Brew House, you and some friends venture along a well-maintained manmade trail along the gorge, giving you great views of the falls and the Pont de Rennes bridge. After picking some wild marijuana flower for your own reserves, you venture back to the Genesee Brew House, order a pre-rolled joint curated specifically by a budtender to match your pale ale, and smoke it with your friends in a smoking section on the rooftop, overlooking downtown Rochester as the sun sets.

All these may sound like high-flying ideas. But they can easily become a reality if New York State were to legalize cannabis. Furthermore, the examples given above are just a few exotic fantasies of life with abundant recreational marijuana. The true benefit would be in making marijuana accessible to people of all means, something they can get easily at the grocery store, the gas station or the pharmacy, something to help them sleep at night, to feel good, to relax after a long day, to get in touch with that special feeling that currently only some are lucky enough to know.

But this isn’t all just a pipe dream for the sake of getting everyone high. The benefits of cannabis legalization to Rochester’s economy could be tremendous. For starters, the impact of legal marijuana on finances (and tax revenues) in legal states such as Colorado, Washington and Oregon is already well-documented. The gains to the job market are likely to be significant as well.

But there’s a special synergy between this plant and the “flower city” that has true potential. Rochester is full of creative yet underutilized people, many with world-class credentials in disciplines that pair excellently with marijuana - film, visual arts, music, food, drink and tech all come to mind. Everywhere you look, you see people with some real passion and skill, but a curious lack of anything in particular to truly galvanize these people into action on a really momentous scale. Legal marijuana has the potential to provide just that spark, so to speak.

That’s not to deny the issues surrounding marijuana legalization. Of course, laws are needed to prevent driving under the influence, which can be tricky since there are less concrete means of measuring marijuana intoxication than that of alcohol.

Of course, it would be negligent not to mention the issues surrounding the impact that marijuana’s criminalization has had on the black community and communities of color in general. For marijuana to be effectively legalized in a socially responsible fashion, the past and ongoing incarcerations (predominantly of people of color) for possession of marijuana, even tiny amounts, have to be addressed. Ending the prison sentences of people convicted of possession and distribution of marijuana, as well as expunging said offenses from their criminal records, would be a great start. Initiatives are also needed to help communities of color, unjustly damaged by the “war on drugs,” reap the economic benefits of marijuana’s legalization as well, particularly as larger corporate entities (owned predominantly if not exclusively by white people) gain power within the legal marijuana market.

Rochester could address this latter issue in particular by providing tax incentives to encourage legal marijuana companies to hire predominantly in neighborhoods occupied primarily by people of color, and to establish their work facilities there as well.

However, this ought to be differentiated from the idea of primarily setting up storefronts in said communities. There is already a phenomenon, evident in Rochester as well as other cities, of lower-income communities becoming the playgrounds of privileged people because they offer a convenient place to set up bars and restaurants. While this can be good in terms of creating some jobs and potentially contributing to the tax revenues in the communities in question, the fact remains that no residential community, especially not one already bearing the stigma and issues of being lower-income, needs to have a disproportionate number of people coming from outside of the neighborhood and creating whole areas full of the smell of marijuana smoke. There may be a benefit to having people come in from outside of the neighborhood to spend money within the neighborhood, but the point is that the marijuana industry jobs that go to lower-income communities and communities of color should not be exclusively jobs in retail while the executive jobs go only to white people in Brighton and Pittsford.

The benefits of using marijuana as an instrument of racial and socioeconomic remediation in Rochester are numerous. This could be the catalyst to bring people together, across diverse backgrounds, cultures and experiences. With numerous jobs available in the marijuana industry that do not require a high school or college degree, nor a clean criminal record, the field could be relatively accessible to workers from all walks of life. If these issues are properly attended to, there is a chance for Rochester to experience a renaissance, in its third iteration as a “flower city,” bringing together a community full of scientists, artists, chefs, agriculturists, and technologists together on lucrative projects that can elevate Rochester in more ways than one.