Opinion | Can New York’s Marijuana Legalization Light Up a New Path?

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New York’s move this week to legalize recreational marijuana, making it the 15th state in the country to do so, was a long time coming. That it would happen at all hasn’t been much of a question since 2018, when Democrats regained control of the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo flipped his position on the issue, but for years negotiations stalled over how to make the transition responsible and fair.

On Tuesday, lawmakers finally felt they got it right. “It is the gold standard for what states around the country should be doing,” Emma Goodman, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said of the law.

Just hours after Mr. Cuomo signed it, the New Mexico Legislature sent its own legalization bill to its governor, and Virginia seems poised to follow suit by the summer. Could New York provide a model for the rest of the country?

Why people (not just stoners) are excited about New York’s law

For many proponents, marijuana legalization is less about using the substance itself than about making amends for the war on drugs, which Americans across the political spectrum have turned their backs on. And perhaps no drug has become more emblematic of that war’s destructive failures than marijuana.

By the numbers: In 2019, the police made more arrests for marijuana-related crimes — 92 percent of which were just for possession — than for all violent crimes combined, according to F.B.I. data. Because arrests can stay on people’s records for years, the consequences even for those who aren’t convicted or imprisoned can be life-altering, damaging their prospects for jobs, loans and housing.

The creation of the federal ban on marijuana was rooted in prejudices against Mexicans and African-Americans, as my colleague Brent Staples has written, and those roots are evident in how the ban has been enforced:

While white people and Black people use marijuana at roughly equal rates, Black people are more than three times as likely to be arrested on low-level possession charges.

The disparity is even worse in New York City, where Black and Hispanic people accounted for 94 percent of marijuana-related arrests in 2020 even though white New Yorkers report using marijuana at higher rates.

“Because of the sheer extent of harm that had been inflicted on Black and brown communities over the years, any marijuana reform that was brought forth had to be equally comprehensive to begin repairing the damage,” Kassandra Frederique, the director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said this week. New York, she added, is “showing the rest of the country what comprehensive marijuana reform — centered in equity, justice and reinvestment — looks like.”

What “justice” looks like: Under New York’s law, people convicted of marijuana-related offenses that are no longer criminalized will have their records automatically expunged.

What “reinvestment” looks like: Marijuana sales in New York will be subject to a tax expected to generate $350 million a year. For years, politicians fought over where that money should go, with Mr. Cuomo wanting to retain control. But lawmakers eventually won out, so 40 percent of the revenue will be reinvested in communities hurt most by drug arrests while the remaining money is earmarked for public education and drug treatment and prevention.

What “equity” looks like: As legalization has moved forward in other states, white people have tended to capture most of the economic opportunity in what is now a multibillion-dollar industry. New York is aiming to pre-empt this problem by creating an “office of cannabis management,” part of whose role is to ensure that half of all licenses go to “social equity applicants”: minorities, women, distressed farmers and service-disabled veterans. Priority will also be given to applicants with a marijuana-related conviction or a close relative with such a conviction.

“This bill really tries to give licensing opportunities to individuals in communities,” Ms. Goodman said. “And even to people that are formerly incarcerated, you’re not necessarily going to be denied just because you have a prior drug offense, for instance.”

Why people (not just prohibitionists) still have concerns

As many legalization proponents point out, marijuana is less addictive and far less deadly than alcohol or tobacco. But it’s not without risks, many of which remain mired in confusion. As recently as 2017, for example, Mr. Cuomo himself suggested that it was a gateway drug. While the theory has fallen out of favor somewhat, there is still no firm consensus about it: As the Centers for Disease Control of Prevention say, “more research is needed.”

The research black hole: Because the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug — the highest level of restriction, the same as heroin’s and one level higher than cocaine’s — funding and conducting research about marijuana’s potential harms and benefits is extremely difficult: There is only one facility in the country that is federally authorized to grow and supply marijuana for research, and its stock has been described as “brown, muddy garbage” that bears little resemblance to — and is much less potent than — most marijuana used today.

“This means states that have legalized cannabis for adult use are doing so in an information vacuum, with less understanding of what it is and what it does than virtually any nutritional supplement currently on the market, and with far less information than they have on legal substances that are easily abused, such as alcohol or tobacco,” Sarah Owermohle wrote for Politico in 2019. “Law enforcement officers don’t even know at what point it is unsafe for marijuana users to drive.”

Road safety concerns were one of the biggest sticking points in New York’s legalization process, The Times Union of Albany reports. Also unlike with alcohol, law enforcement officers have no easy way to check drivers for cannabis intoxication. (New York, for its part, has required its health department to study emerging saliva test devices.) The effects legalization may have on car accidents aren’t clear, but, as Dr. Aaron E. Carroll wrote for The Times in 2019, “It’s perfectly natural to be concerned that as cannabis products become legal in more states, they will affect more people.”

Another sticking point in New York was the potential consequences of legalization for minors. As David Abel writes in The Boston Globe, there is good reason to believe that it will increase the risk of children accidentally ingesting edibles. And especially given the rise in teenage vaping, Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told The Times that policymakers should find ways to protect adolescents, who are more vulnerable to the addictive and cognitive risks that marijuana and other drugs pose. States will have to think hard about how to do so without funneling children into police precincts, courts and jails, Laura Cohen, the director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School, argues.

And even for adults, state legalization won’t be a silver bullet for marijuana-related criminal justice issues, largely because marijuana possession remains a federal crime. A research report conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union found that while states that have legalized marijuana show smaller racial disparities in arrests than states that haven’t, they still persist — and in some cases have even worsened.

In the absence of federal legalization, local governments should end police enforcement or make it a low priority, the report recommends. That’s the strategy that’s been pursued in New York, where police officers can no longer use the smell of marijuana as a reason to stop people on the street. But that shift, in turn, may create its own tensions.

“I don’t know what we’re going to be telling New Yorkers when they call up and say there’s people smoking in front of my house or apartment building,” Dermot Shea, the commissioner of the New York Police Department, said. “Now it’s not going to be a police matter and that’s troubling.”

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.

READ MORE ON THE LEGALIZATION PUSH

“Biden has a golden opportunity to change how we approach marijuana” [The Washington Post]

“What Will Legal Cannabis Look Like in New York?” [The New York Times]

“Cannabis was supposed to be a tax windfall for states. The reality has been different.” [Politico]

“As New York moves toward marijuana legalization, experts warn it may lead to more overdoses in kids” [NBC]

“Can Magic Mushrooms Heal Us?” [The New York Times]

WHAT YOU’RE SAYING

Here’s what readers had to say about the last debate: Biden’s infrastructure plan

Leslie from Missouri: “‘Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, said last week. “You don’t make tax policy on the basis of class.”’ Really? So what the Republicans have been doing since the Reagan era isn’t making tax policy on the basis of class?”

Martin from Illinois: “Federal income tax rate increases are needed only to prevent inflation due to a shortage of physical resources occurring at some point in a project as the result of overspending on infrastructure. At the time of legislation, it is impossible to predict if and/or when the shortage will occur. … Hence, a mechanism is needed to rapidly increase federal income tax rates only when necessary. I suggest a bill that imposes very high ‘permanent’ federal income tax rates with ‘temporary’ abatement that the Fed can modify when and as necessary to prevent both inflation and poverty.”

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