On Election Day, advocates for legalizing marijuana celebrated two of their biggest victories to date when Colorado and Washington state voted to legalize the drug.
And although they anticipate other states might soon follow suit, particularly those in the Northeast, they don’t expect New York to be one of them.
In both Colorado and Washington, marijuana legalization was passed by voters. New York lacks a ballot initiative process, which means legalization can only be approved by the state Legislature. The ballot initiative process allows people to enact laws and amendments independently of state legislatures by submitting petitions and forcing a vote.
“If voters in New York could go to the polls and vote, as they did in Colorado and Washington, maybe we would see a similar outcome,” said Gabriel Sayegh, director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York office. But, “I don’t think it’s in the cards in Albany,” he said.
The alliance is a New York City-based organization that promotes drug policy reform. Last week, the group announced that state legislators in Rhode Island and Maine, where medical marijuana has already been legalized, plan to introduce legalization bills. Vermont and Massachusetts are also likely to introduce legalization bills, according to the group. On Election Day, voters in Massachusetts legalized medical marijuana. The only state in New England that has not moved to change its marijuana laws is New Hampshire.
Surveys suggest there is a generational gap when it comes to legalizing marijuana. A poll released last week by ABC News and the Washington Post found that a majority of Americans ages 65 and under favor legalizing personal possession of marijuana, but only 30 percent of Americans ages 65 and older support legalization.
Overall, 48 percent of those surveyed supported legalizing marijuana, while 50 percent opposed it.
“America has grown extraordinarily tired of the drug war,” Sayegh said. “It’s a new day. We’re no longer in a situation where ending prohibition [of marijuana] is an outlandish idea.”
Kevin Jones, executive director of NY Capital Region NORML, which formed in the summer of 2011 to support legalization efforts in New York, said he receives calls every week from people who have been arrested on marijuana charges and he encourages them to call their state representatives and push for change in the state’s drug laws.
Now that legalization has passed in two states, “I think a lot more states are going to shoot for outright legalization,” he said. “People see the changes that are occurring and they’re starting to be more openly supportive.”
NY Capital Region NORML is the local chapter of a national organization that supports marijuana legalization.
Some worry about the consequences of making marijuana legal.
Amsterdam police Chief Gregory Culick said legalization might result in an increase in car accidents, as more people drive under the influence.
“If we see more fatal accidents, we would have to ramp up enforcement,” he said.
He also said legalizing marijuana might have a deleterious effect on society in general.
“Are we such a lost society that people have to smoke this drug? If we take the illegal stigma away, I think kids who would not otherwise try it will try it.”
But Culick also said legalization is inevitable.
“It’s going to happen,” he said. “Colorado and Washington are a litmus test.”
Last week, a drug raid in Amsterdam netted a dozen arrests, with police seizing heroin, cocaine and marijuana at five locations.
Not every marijuana measure won on Election Day, though. One notable defeat occurred in Oregon.
Sayegh sees the possibility for marijuana reform in New York in one area: the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana that are in public view.
Earlier this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed reducing the charge for possessing marijuana to a violation, with a fine up to $100. The proposal was made shortly after the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy had come under fire for disproportionately targeting black and Hispanic youths. According to the governor’s office, in 2011 more than 50,000 arrests for small amounts of marijuana were made, up from 2,000 in 1990. Half of those arrested were younger than 25, and 82 percent were black or Hispanic.
At the time, the governor said, “There’s a blatant inconsistency. If you possess marijuana privately, it’s a violation. If you show it in public, it’s a crime.”
Cuomo’s proposal was endorsed by New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who heads the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York. Despite this support, the bill died in the state Senate.
“Hopefully the Legislature will pass it next year,” Sayegh said, but the uncertainty “is an indication of how complicated the issue is in Albany.”
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In 1977, the state Legislature reduced the penalty for possessing 25 grams or less of marijuana to a non-criminal violation carrying a fine of no more than $100 for first-time offenders, provided the marijuana was not public view.
A spokeswoman for the New York State Bar Association said the group had not taken a position on whether marijuana should be legalized; the District Attorneys Association has not taken a position, either.
Sayegh noted that efforts to legalize medical marijuana have not gained much traction in New York; last year, a medical marijuana bill passed the Assembly and died in the Senate. But he said “the winds might be beginning to change. I think we’re close.”
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. Many of these states have also decriminalized marijuana possession.
“Basically, almost everywhere in New England and the mid-Atlantic has passed medical marijuana laws,” Sayegh said. “New York at this point is an odd outlier.”
Sayegh said there are a number of reasons to support legalization, chief among them the ineffectiveness of the nation’s drug laws. He said the time and money spent enforcing drug laws is a “waste of resources,” and law enforcement should be able to “focus on things that really matter.” If marijuana were legal, it could be taxed and regulated, similar to alcohol, and the state, rather than criminal syndicates, would benefit.
“If you don’t want people to be using something, you put price controls on it and bring it under a system of regulation,” Sayegh said. “The prohibition model is the absence of control. We pretend that by making marijuana illegal, we’re making it go away.”
He said “we don’t want young people using marijuana,” and he suggested that legalizing it would make it harder to obtain the drug, by driving black markets out of business and requiring IDs to purchase it.
“Marijuana can be taxed and regulated,” he said. “If you give me the chance to grow a hemp field, you’ll get the chance to tax it when I go to sell it.”
New York Capital Region NORML recently voted to launch a campaign aimed at making people aware of what it sees as the benefits of legalization and in the spring will begin traveling to public events in a “mobile marijuana library” — an ambulance painted with pro-marijuana reform messages. “We’ll be able to park it anywhere and draw attention to it,” Jones said.
Jones said he was arrested for possessing 90 pounds of marijuana in Texas in 2000, spent a night in jail and received five years of probation. Two years ago, his employer found out about his criminal record and fired him.
“I got really upset,” he said. “And then I started getting adamant that nobody should suffer this way because of a plant.”
He said he still smokes marijuana “because I like it.”
In June, a Siena Research Institute poll found 61 percent of New York voters support legalizing medical marijuana. The New York State Medical Society has also spoken in favor of legalization.