SIPA Magazine

Truth and Reconciliation

By Aastha Uprety MPA ’21
Posted Oct 05 2023
Damian Fagon | Photo by Quang Trinh
Photo by Quang Trinh

New York is hoping marijuana legalization can correct the injustices of history. Damian Fagon MPA ’17 is making it happen.

Damian Fagon MPA ’17 has taken root in the world of cannabis. He’s taught about cannabis cultivation at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, served as a board member of the Cannabis Association of New York, and founded his own hemp farm. In July 2022 he stepped into his biggest challenge yet: serving as chief equity officer for the State of New York’s Office of Cannabis Management (OCM).

It’s a role that carries immense historical weight. “By definition it is a reparations project,” Fagon says. For decades before the drug was finally legalized, New York City was called the marijuana arrest capital of the world, with thousands of arrests yearly that overwhelmingly impacted Black and Latino New Yorkers. Tough policing measures like stop-and-frisk through- out the 2000s worsened the trend, and those who were impacted suffered from the social and economic impacts of criminalization, including housing insecurity and decreased future earnings. 

Now, with the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), signed in March 2021 after years of pressure from activists to stop the senseless arrests, the state is making sure legalization helps the communities who were most harmed by prohibition gain the most economic benefit from the new market. 

The OCM seeks to “redress economic harms with economic development solutions,” Fagon says. “You can’t just pretend these injustices didn’t happen.” Along with expunging past criminal records, under the MRTA, the OCM aims to issue half of all cannabis business licenses to underrepresented groups and populations impacted by prohibition, including those who were convicted of marijuana- related crimes and their loved ones. The OCM also plans to redirect tax revenue from cannabis to communities most harmed by marijuana criminalization.

“These are some of the most resilient, entrepreneurial, incredible people you’ll ever meet,” Fagon says of the first license recipients. “Some of them sold drugs in the ’90s and 2000s because they had to; others are just taxi drivers who’d smoke a joint outside Times Square. There’s also a large number of service-disabled veterans who came back from Iraq or Afghanistan and consumed cannabis to self-medicate when other prescription drugs were failing them.”

It’s an ambitious endeavor, and the rollout of social equity licenses has been a challenge. “The market we’re building requires a lot of regulations to ensure a level playing field,” Fagon says, adding that the state has some- times struggled to communicate the significance of the complex regulatory framework to the general public.

But the OCM is doing its best to reach neighborhoods that have been harmed by prohibition. Last year Fagon’s team presented their plan to residents of the Brownsville public housing development in Brooklyn, where “one attendee said they’d never actually had a government agency come to them with an economic opportunity— ever,” Fagon says. He was shocked to hear this from a man in his 60s who had lived in Brownsville his entire life and seen government presentations about schools, transportation, and gun prevention but never about business or building wealth. Fagon says he felt a renewed commitment to showing these communities that the government can work for them, not against them, “which is historically what the government has done.”

‘I Should Get My Hands in the Dirt’ 

Fagon grew up in Washington, DC, and spent summers visiting his family’s orange farm back in Jamaica, which suffered under global agricultural policies implemented by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. “I remember, as a kid, seeing the farm deteriorate over time,” Fagon says. “Why weren’t we able to export oranges anymore? What policies were leading to the town that my family’s from becoming so poor?”

Fagon enrolled in SIPA in 2015, fully expecting to earn his degree and re- turn to the federal government to work on agricultural policy or international development. But while at Columbia, his thinking changed. “I had visions of myself in an air-conditioned room, sending emails to farmers in Sierra Leone and telling them to use different fertilizer,” Fagon says. “It just felt very inauthentic.”

He had visited a few countries to work directly with farmers, who would often ask if he had ever farmed before. Fagon says he realized he needed to understand business from the perspective of a small entrepreneur. He recalls thinking, “I actually have to do this work— I should get my hands in the dirt.”

After graduating, he founded a hemp farm in the Hudson Valley. “I was al- ways looking at farming as something to strengthen my understanding of agriculture and business development,” Fagon says. “I really didn’t expect it, but I fell in love with growing plants and growing cannabis.”

Fagon would wake up at 6 a.m. to take the train and spend hours among the nearly 15,000 six-foot-tall cannabis plants towering over his 10-acre field. “Walking through that every day, with the smells and the growth and watching how the plants are responding to the New York climate and soil, I loved it,” Fagon says. “It was incredible.”

At SIPA Fagon met his wife, Daniele Selby MIA ’17, and expanded his under- standing of global social and economic issues.

One formative moment for Fagon came during a clash with a guest speaker: former NYPD police commissioner Bill Bratton, who had come to speak to the late Mayor David N. Dinkins’s class. Bratton was known for his “broken windows” style of policing, and when asked, he expressed disagreement with the activists who were pushing for marijuana-legalization efforts. Fagon pushed back, and their disagreement inspired him. He knew in that moment that he would be doing the work to undo years of punitive drug policy.

Fagon also recalls another guest speaker at Columbia: Sara Horowitz, founder of the Freelancers Union, who spoke to students about shifting economies away from extractive capital- ism and toward structures that would benefit communities. “I was blown away,” Fagon says. “Up until then I felt a little trapped in my thinking around economic development.”

It’s because of these eye-opening experiences that Fagon urges SIPA students to seek learning opportunities wherever they can find them. “A lot of students were focused on just memorizing what they learned in the class- room,” Fagon says. But what he found most rewarding was taking those an- alytical tools and applying new ideas to economics, entrepreneurship, and advocacy.

“Look at the city you’re in, at the community you’re involved with,” Fagon says. “Learn from that, and take that into your career.”