An employee makes pre-rolls in the kitchen. They are measured afterwards to be exactly one gram. Yehyun Kim /

Millions of dollars in cannabis-legalization money is slated to trickle back into New Haven’s neighborhoods most negatively impacted by the War on Drugs — and residents are responding with programmatic pitches to put those funds towards community revitalization, from serving the homeless hot meals to mentoring Black billionaires in the making.

Roughly 100 New Haveners filled Dixwell Avenue’s First Calvary Baptist Church on Monday evening for a community meeting bordering on ​“Shark Tank” session to brainstorm the best ways to use a pending batch of grant money stemming from cannabis licensing fees and a weed sales tax.

That anticipated money is the second batch of funding promised to communities by the state through their cannabis-related ​“community reinvestment plan.” Jacqueline James-Boyd was contracted by the council as the leader of New Haven nonprofit Next Level Empowerment Program Inc. to host a series of six community conversations in order to reap public input regarding where to allot the incoming money.

That ​“reinvestment” fund came out of the state’s promise to help reverse some of the harms caused by cannabis prohibition following the plant’s in-state legalization. In addition to policy measures attempting to prioritize industry jobs and business ownership for low-income people of color and erasing low-level cannabis possession convictions, the state decided to set aside some of their proceeds from cannabis licensure and taxation to give back to communities most affected by the plant’s criminalization.

Last year, the state gave out $6 million to third party grant managers for distribution to local organizations doing relevant work. In New Haven, the Prosperity Foundation received $1 million, which they exclusively divided between groups offering youth and prison reintegration services. The foundation announced this month 25 different organizations that will receive a portion of that million, including EMERGE, Fixing Fathers, and Stop Solitary CT.

Kristina Diamond, the communications manager for the state’s Social Equity Council, the crew of representatives tasked with overseeing the social justice implications of cannabis legalization, told the Independent that it’s unclear how much community reinvestment money will be available for the state or for New Haven this year.

James-Boyd, meanwhile, reported on Monday that $34 million is expected for community reinvestment across the state, and around $2 to $5 million of that total will go towards New Haven grant opportunities, in particular.

James-Boyd informed her audience that those dollars are meant to go towards neighborhoods like ​“Dixwell, Newhallville, and the Hill.”

“It’s not for East Rock, it’s not for Downtown,” she said. It’s for ​“all the issues we have in Black and Brown communities.”

Michael Jefferson, a local attorney and member of the statewide Social Equity Council, described the cannabis money as ​“payback” for ​“the War on Drugs that decimated our community.”

A couple million, he said, ​“is not transformative money — but it will make a difference.”

Though the state has yet to pick organizations to oversee a formal application process for the funding once it’s made available, the Social Equity Council plans to use the community priorities cited during public input sessions like Monday’s to help guide who is ultimately selected as grant recipients.

Still, James-Boyd urged those who spoke up on Monday not just to state their broad goals for the money, but to describe specific programmatic structures that smaller pots of funding could functionally support.

“We all want a youth center,” she offered as an example. ​“But what does that look like? Who’s going to run it and how will it be sustained?”

A man named Brother Wayne pitched a plan to launch a coding and STEM education program for New Haven elementary students. “$2.5 million! That’s what I need to make the change in this community we really need.”

“I’m gonna be very, very honest. You will not get $2 million from us,” James-Boyd replied. She urged those with high-budget ideas to forge partnerships with other organizations and apply for alternative funding sources, including the city’s Community Development Block Grant program.

Pastor Robert Smith jumped up with a slate of different initiatives: A music industry workshop series designed to teach talented, young musicians about how to make money off their art; finance investment classes to get kids of color building wealth early; a parental coaching program to teach Black fathers the importance of stepping up for their kids. 

Jayuan Carter, meanwhile, had a different idea about wealth accrual. ​“There are a lot of quiet sleeping giants of color,” he said. What about a mentorship program to find and develop more Black billionaires?

James-Boyd gave a nod of approval: ​“I am an aspiring millionaire myself.”

For every unique programmatic plan pitched, one church after another would ask for money to keep up work they have been doing out of pocket, primarily feeding and clothing those most in need.

A woman who introduced herself as Pastor Jessie, for example, said that she recently lost the space where she ran a food pantry, daycare, and clothing drive because of an uptick in rent. 

Her ask, unlike others, wasn’t for money to recreate her former meal services. ​“Around New Haven I see a lot of abandoned buildings and nothing being done with them,” she said. Why not use the money to adopt and repair some of those blighted properties to create affordable housing for the many struggling to pay rent on tight incomes?

“Bring it back down to $700 a month!” she begged. ​“Because I am not a millionaire!”

As ideas flowed, James-Boyd kept encouraging audience members to move forward with their plans whether or not they receive state money to enact it. Other attendees, like Rodney Williams, also spoke up to make the same point.

After an impassioned speech about the need for more youth services to avoid the same cycle of incarceration exacerbated by the war on drugs, Williams argued that ​“we need to have these meetings not because of cannabis money.” Rather than competing for scarce money, he said, the community should continue convening to use their shared power to make the kind of change everyone at the meeting desired to see.

The room broke out in applause once again, as it did in support for all who spoke up Monday night.

This story was first published Nov. 16, 2023 by New Haven Independent.