It’s pretty clear New York is going to legalize marijuana for recreational use in the very near future.
Given the public’s shifting attitudes toward acceptance, as evidenced by numerous polls, it’s time for New York to join 10 other states and allow its citizens to enjoy marijuana as they wish.
While it’s easy to perceive the impact of legalization as nothing more than the stereotypical bunch of dudes passing a joint around, taking some bong hits, mellowing out, listening to the Grateful Dead, catching a cool buzz and craving Doritos, passing legislation will involve much more than lifting the ban and moving on.
Before New York lawmakers take the giant step of introducing a newly legal mind-altering drug into society, they need to consider the potentially serious consequences and impacts, and make provisions to address those impacts in the initial legislation.
From a law enforcement approach, legalization will be a mixed bag.
Among the major factors that lawmakers will have to consider in their new law is the impact on traffic safety.
While state officials don’t estimate a huge increase in the number of adult pot smokers from the current estimate of 1.27 million users, legalization may prompt more people to be more open about its use and therefore to drive more often under the influence.
Right now, there’s no easy way for police to figure out what kind if impact marijuana use has on individual crashes. It’s fairly easy to measure for alcohol intoxication because of the way our bodies process alcohol. But it’s much more difficult to measure the intoxicating effects of marijuana, and there is no reliable, uniform tool to measure how high someone is. That will pose a challenge for police as they pull over more people for driving under the influence of the drug. Police will need funding for more comprehensive training to identify and prosecute drugged drivers under the new legislation.
If New York legalizes marijuana, statistics in other states show, police will make fewer arrests of people transporting the drug across state lines. There also will be fewer drivers driving under the influence of marijuana purchased in neighboring states where it is legal, since New Yorkers will be able to obtain it locally. That could help cut down on traffic accidents.
Even after recreational marijuana is legalized, police still will have to go after drug sellers who sell illegal marijuana. In California, police estimate that only 25 percent of recreational marijuana is being purchased from government sources. While the state will be able to regulate the potency of marijuana sold through state-licensed facilities, it will still need law enforcement to track down and investigate marijuana sold on the black market. That includes high-potency marijuana and marijuana laced with other drugs such as fentanyl, a powerful opioid.
THOSE IN JAIL NOW
While law enforcement won’t have to deal with arresting people for possession of personal amounts of legal pot, legalization does raise the question about people already serving jail sentences for possession.
In Michigan, where recreational marijuana officially only became legal on Thursday, lawmakers there are considering legislation to release hundreds of prisoners serving sentences related to the use, possession or distribution of marijuana. Those in jail on marijuana offenses will be able petition the parole board for release.
New York should consider doing something similar here. But we suggest that before flinging open jail cells, the state form a review board to consider the circumstances for releasing those charged with marijuana-related crimes.
CHILDREN, EMPLOYERS, EDUCATION, LOCAL CONTROL
- Another impact of legalization will be on kids. Like cigarettes and alcohol, the state needs to take a zero-tolerance approach to recreational marijuana use. It should employ the same age limits, penalties for sale to minors and rules related to exposure to advertising and marketing to minors as it does for alcohol and tobacco products.
- While many employers already have policies regarding how to deal with employees who come to work impaired by drugs and alcohol, the state should consider working with employers to develop consistent standards and recommendations as use of the drug becomes more widespread.
- In line with educating employers, the state will need to invest in an educational campaign for kids and adults about regulations and laws, the health and societal impacts of marijuana use, the potential side effects, and the relationship between marijuana and other bad behavior.
- Marijuana use isn’t completely benign, as many would have you believe. Some people will need to seek treatment for abusing the drug, and the state needs to be prepared to provide services to those individuals.
- Local control. While a statewide legalization of marijuana use would preclude local governments from enforcing their own rules regarding use, counties should be given the authority over whether to allow retail marijuana sales outlets and over location based on local zoning and planning regulations.
- The state will have to add marijuana smoking to existing laws regulating where people can smoke tobacco products in order to cut down on the impact of second-hand marijuana smoke.
SPENDING THE MONEY
Legalizing marijuana for recreational use will actually have benefits beyond just allowing citizens to get high without someone calling the cops.
State lawmakers are seeing dollar signs. State officials have estimated that state and local governments will generate anywhere from $248 million to almost $678 million in additional tax revenue from new taxes on legal marijuana sales. As it did with gambling revenue, the state is likely overestimating the amount it will take in.
Still, states that have legalized the drug have seen a substantial increase in tax revenue, and New York can expect some kind of windfall.
How exactly should that money be allocated? Some already have set their sights on how they’re going to spend the revenue. A group studying new sources of revenue for New York City’s financially struggling mass transit system the other day suggested using the pot revenue to fix up the subways and trains. That’s an idea many in upstate New York would no doubt balk at.
We suggest the state look to using the money to fix up its aging roads, bridges, wastewater systems, drinking water systems and airports -- an approach that will benefit both upstate and downstate, as well as create jobs and boost the overall economy. A 2017 infrastructure report by the American Society of Civil Engineers suggested it could cost New York upwards of $120 billion over the next 10 or 20 years to upgrade those systems. The marijuana money might be very helpful there.
Everyone’s going to want a piece of that pie. Lawmakers need to have public hearings and debates on exactly how marijuana revenue will be distributed.
Not having to arrest people for possession and minor sales will allow police, prosecutors, the courts and the corrections departments to focus their financing and attention on other crimes. That could lead to lower costs for our legal system or a reallocation of resources. With fewer people in jail in marijuana offenses, it will not only reduce the law enforcement costs to the state, but also the costs associated with post-incarceration supervision, social services for marijuana users and their families, and other related impacts.
One criminal justice-related benefit to eliminating arrests for minor pot possession will be that legalization will reduce discrimination against minorities arrested for marijuana use.
A disproportionate number of people arrested for marijuana possession are blacks and Hispanics, even though studies have shown that consumption among blacks, whites and Hispanics is similar. A Washington Post article from 2013 highlighted the racial differences in use vs. arrests, and the results were startling. Overall use across all age groups was pretty close to equal. Whites aged 18-24 actually had a higher percentage of pot smokers than blacks. But blacks were arrested for marijuana possession anywhere from three to five times as often as whites nationwide. In some places, that difference was ten-fold.
There are also health benefits to smoking marijuana, according to the state Health Department, including reducing the reliance on and effects of opioid use, which could be a help in addressing the opioid crisis.
Legalizing marijuana for recreational use isn’t going to be as simple as dropping the laws and looking away. And assessing the impacts isn’t going to be as easy as it is with other drugs like alcohol and tobacco because there’s not a lengthy body of research available on the impacts of the drug.
Still, with many people now favoring legalization; with surrounding states like Vermont, Massachusetts and New Jersey already allowing it or considering it; and with the potential tax benefits of retail sales to the state budget and economy, New York should move ahead with legalization.
But it will have to do it methodically and with attention toward mitigating the potential negative impacts.