EDITORIAL: Weigh all factors in legal pot

Leaves on a marijuana plant.
Leaves on a marijuana plant.

Once again, the state is seeing dollar signs.

And once again, it needs to take a step back and decide whether the action it’s considering is worth the price.

As part of his multi-part State of the State message last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo endorsed the legalization of recreational marijuana as a potential new source of tax revenue — an estimated $300 million a year for a state reeling from the covid crisis.

Implemented and managed well, and addressing the issues raised in the 15 other states that have already legalized recreational marijuana, the benefits of moving forward could outweigh the negatives.

In addition to raising needed revenue for the state, legalizing recreational marijuana could also be a step forward for minority rights and criminal justice reform. Many are subject to arrest and imprisonment for possessing even small quantities of marijuana.

In 2019, the state took a step forward on that front, expunging many past marijuana convictions and reducing the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana from misdemeanors to violations. But that’s not the same as decriminalizing the drug.

Even a violation puts one in the criminal system, allowing police to continue to use pot possession as justification for arresting minorities. As a result, too many people are still sitting in jail cells for possession. The state would have to further address decriminalization as it legalizes recreational use.

One justification often put forward for legalizing the drug and allowing state-regulated manufacture of it for sale is the claim that it would reduce illegal sales and manage the potency of the drug. But not everyone agrees that it’s all beneficial.

With the drug being legal, it’s one less crime for police to enforce, one less category of criminal with which to burden the justice system, and one less societal problem, advocates argue.

It’s true, in states where it’s legal, charges for pot possession, property crimes and even opioid use have gone down.

But according to the Institute for Behavior and Health, legal marijuana has a major disadvantage when it comes to competing with illegal marijuana — taxes and regulations add to the cost of legal marijuana.

So there will always be a black market for cheaper drugs, and therefore marijuana-related crime. Also, both legal and illegal suppliers of the drug have increased its potency, making it potentially more dangerous than the drug past generations grew up with.

Scientists still haven’t found an effective way to test for THC, the compound that gives pot its potency. Testing for impairment for marijuana use is not the same as testing for drug or alcohol use, which is easily determined by measuring the percentage of content in the blood stream. How will marijuana’s use be regulated with regard to impairment while driving or while at work?

Even if New York legalizes recreational marijuana, it’s still illegal on the federal level, putting state and federal employment and impairment laws at odds.

The state will have to address this, too.

Back to the revenue projections: In most states that have legalized recreational marijuana, revenue has met or exceeded projections. But not in all. As more states legalize it, it could have the same watering-down effect on the state market that legalized gambling across multiple states had – meaning less revenue than projected. And how exactly will the revenue be distributed in the state budget? Education? Infrastructure? Criminal justice? Lawmakers may not all agree.

In the rush to close the budget gap, state officials need to consider all the pluses and minuses and provide adequate answers to the public before moving forward.

Categories: Opinion

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