There are mornings when I choose to take a longer route to work just to take in the sights and greet some fellow constituents.
For over a decade now I have made a conscious decision each day to work, live and prosper in Bridgeport. I practice law at my office located at the intersection of Fairfield Avenue and Iranistan Avenue. Many in the city know the area to be one of many neglected regions in Bridgeport. During my drive to work, I see nip bottles, lottery tickets, cigarette carts and overall garbage that litters Barnum Avenue.
What I see is no shock; private industries that make a profit off of vices only see what they can take from communities and don’t see what they leave behind. Ironically, this is one of many of Bridgeport’s main streets that has been disregarded by private investors for a long time.
Those who grow up on these capital-deprived streets find ways to survive and provide some kind of economic support for their families and other generations to come. Some might be able to open up bodegas, or mom-and-pop shops, and I take it upon myself to support these businesses and make myself readily available to hear their voices. I make it a point to hire and contract Bridgeport businesses and people in my personal and professional life.
However, it is largely ingrained in those that “make it” to pack up and take their success elsewhere. Unfortunately, Bridgeport has been deprived of economic opportunity in what seems to be an endless positive feedback loop.
In my reflections on my privilege of being elected to public office, I often see policy and bills branded as the solution to the problems I see before me. I find value and hope in the belief that our democracy enables people, like those deprived of equal opportunity, to have a voice in this process.
Now, I have not been in office for the majority of my life, but I will speak on what I have learned and what I have seen during my time in this seat and in the pursuit of fighting for what is best for my city. Legalizing cannabis is not the solution we hope it to be, nor is it the solution that was crafted with the purpose of helping historically neglected communities.
When I dig deeper, I reflect on the history and impact the War on Drugs has on my community, a reality that is not foreign to many other cities across this country. Those who speak to the streets and are working with the people know that Bridgeport at one point had many of the biggest drug kingpins in the state. As a criminal defense attorney, I meet young Black and brown men almost daily whose main source of income is selling marijuana. How can we guarantee they will have a clear route to legitimize themselves? This bill offers no protections or prioritization for them.
There needs to be complete expungement of any marijuana-related charges for any and all amounts. Our communities need to be protected from existing giants in the cannabis industry both nationally and in state. We need a fighting chance, but our families need reparations from years of lost income for Black and brown families who have had to live without a father or mother due to the abusive and inherently racist War on Drugs in our country.
If the state and executive branch want to see cannabis legalized, they need to do it the right way. I am frustrated with the false hopes and promises given to my people every legislative session. With this bill, I am being told that decriminalizing our youth and Black and brown men is only possible when the state has more important private interests attached to it. These requirements proposed on qualifying for a “Social Equity Applicant” is another loophole for private entities to exploit the system.
We are just finding out how existing grant programs aimed at helping women in the private sector are being abused by those who only place a self-identified woman as a business owner on paper. With an industry as highly sought-after as cannabis, how are we going to put in place protections against this type of abuse? According to the residency requirement, it takes “five of the (last) 10 years immediately preceding the date of such application” to qualify. Where are the protections and guarantees for those rightfully deserving people to compete against a stipulation like this? How are we going to include those incarcerated in a different city for drug offenses?
We see new funds that are supposed to come into aid in our schools, our health services, our housing and our social services, but at the same time, we see historical funding that was supposed to always be there being reduced, appropriated elsewhere or taken out completely. I am tired of the ruse and I know I share these frustrations with many. This bill needs to protect the existing funding our cities receive, and no executive power should be able to alter that. Our state can invest in Black and brown businesses now with federal monies coming in.
Our state can choose to invest in our failing school systems and our youth. Our state can decriminalize our people for the sake of their humanity and livelihoods. However, I am being told our state cannot and will not do so unless it is wrapped in a capital-hungry tactic to legalize cannabis. My constituency and my people deserve better and we need better. This is not the promise we think it is, nor is it the promise I hoped for.
State Sen. Dennis Bradley represents the 23rd District, in Bridgeport.