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EDITORIAL: Hold off on marijuana law ... for now

EDITORIAL: Hold off on marijuana law ... for now

Get the bill right, rather than trying to rush it through by the end of session

Six months ago, we offered a cautious endorsement of legalizing recreational marijuana in New York state.

We figured with the mood in the country shifting toward legalization, with 10 states already approving some kind of legalization, it was inevitable it would happen here.

But we also said it wouldn’t be simple, that there were a lot of serious issues to consider. And if lawmakers couldn’t resolve these issues, they should wait on passage until they could.

Now here we are, just a few days before the end of the legislative session, and lawmakers haven’t passed the legislation to legalize the drug for recreational use.

They’ve made significant progress, and the newest version of the legislation comes very close to completing our checklist of issues that need to be addressed.

For instance, the new bill (A1617A/S1527A) provides for judicial relief for those charged non-violent minor possession charges through resentencing, expunging arrest records and sealing of past criminal records.

Decriminalizing basic possession and allowing those already convicted to have their sentences reduced or eliminated will go far in reducing the discrimination found in existing marijuana prohibition laws.

The bill gives communities a choice in deciding whether to authorize sales within their borders, and it allows localities to add their own tax so they can garner revenue from sales.

It sets up a marijuana revenue fund to provide money for drug treatment, education, mental health services, legal and employment assistance, and to help communities most affected by the problem. It applies existing rules relating to advertising and access to children that are currently applied to alcohol and tobacco sales.

They’ve set up a regulatory structure and enforcement system for the new industry.

But as close as they’ve come, they’ve fallen short on a couple of items that will require more thought and consideration, including how businesses and law enforcement are going to deal with newly legal pot smokers.

Businesses will be challenged by conflicting federal and state standards and by the difficulty in determining whether employees are under the influence enough to be unable to do their jobs.

Police still have no reliable or consistent means for evaluating whether drivers are illegally under the influence. The monetary savings the state expects to realize in fewer criminal prosecutions might be erased by increased costs of civil litigation.

Give lawmakers credit for not rushing this through, as many expected them to do, especially with a new Democratic majority in both houses of the Legislature that had a very active first couple of weeks. The temptation to go for the quick buck from taxing marijuana sales and issuing permits for producers and distributors must have been pretty strong. 

The urge to rush through legislation by the end of session might be even stronger now, especially with Illinois last week becoming the first state in the country to legalize recreational marijuana through legislation rather than through a voter referendum.

But the wisest course of action is to continue on the path of thoughtful consideration and take the time to get the legislation right.

Another few months won’t hurt.
And in the end, New Yorkers will end up with a better, safer, more effective law.

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