Marijuana Reform in New York Can’t Erase the Past

downward shot of a street in new york state

The legalization of cannabis in New York State may soon be a reality, according to the New York Times. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) gave a speech on Dec. 17 in Manhattan announcing that he intends to make legalizing cannabis in New York state part of his 2019 legislative session.

Medical marijuana is already legal in New York for people suffering from AIDS/HIV, ALS, cancer, epilepsy, Huntington’s disease, IBS, intractable pain, multiple sclerosis, nausea, neuropathy, spinal cord injuries with spasticity, Parkinson’s disease, PTSD, seizures, or any illness where opioids are prescribed. Cuomo says that he wants to the legalization of cannabis in New York State to become a reality within the first 100 days of 2019.

The New York governor was previously against the idea of legalization of cannabis in New York State but has since evolved after being challenged by progressive gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon and reading a report from the New York Department of Health recommending legalization. He previously called marijuana a gateway drug, but evidence has shown that marijuana can be an exit drug from opioid use because it can control pain, help repair damaged brain tissue, and help prevent opioid cravings during detox.

Getting Informed

hands holding marijuana plants growing

The New York Department of Health conducted an assessment on the impact of legalization of cannabis in New York State at the governor's request and the report found that prohibiting marijuana contributes to racism; they ultimately recommended that the state legalize cannabis. The Department of Health report also says that a provision addressing prior marijuana convictions should be included in any legislation legalizing the drug. The report also found that legalizing marijuana can decrease opioid use as well as assist people detoxing from opioids.

Cuomo cited the financial benefits of the legalization of cannabis in New York State and the state's disproportionate arrest rate of minorities as reasons for his intent to legalize cannabis in the announcement. New York City police arrest African-Americans at 8 times the rate of Caucasians in NYC for marijuana, and at 15 times the rate of Caucasians in Manhattan, a fact that Cuomo says needs to change.

"The fact is we have had two criminal justice systems: one for the wealthy and the well off, and one for everyone else," adding that Black people and other minorities have been disproportionately targeted for too long and that it was high time to legalize recreational marijuana.

The state could also generate between $248 million and $677 million in taxes during the first year of legalization of cannabis in New York State, and New York could generate more than $1.7 billion in recreational marijuana sales every year.

Nixon forced the centrist governor to acknowledge the negative impact of racist policing on communities of color during her gubernatorial campaign bid against the incumbent governor for the Democratic nomination.

Pot Politics

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Cuomo has also received hefty campaign donations from the cannabis industry, which could also be responsible for prompting his new support for legalizing cannabis in New York. More than 60 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana, and Cuomo is rumored to be considering running for president, which could have also prompted his new love for Mary Jane.

Democrats support the legalization of cannabis by nearly 70 percent nationwide, and 75 percent of Independents support marijuana legalization, even more reason for the ambitious Democratic governor's ganja evolution.

Those in the pot industry were thrilled with the news from the governor, however, not all members of the Democratic party were convinced of the governor's commitment to racial justice. Assemblyman Walter Mosley (D-Brooklyn) worries that those arrested prior to the new era of legal cannabis will be left behind.

Racial Disparities in Arresting

blue lake and trees in New York

Hispanic people are arrested at 5 times the rate of Caucasians in New York City, and a New York Times investigation found that police arrested people in Black neighborhoods at 4 times the rate as they did in predominately Caucasian neighborhoods.

At least 87 percent of people arrested for weed were Black or Hispanic, and even in areas where 70 percent of the population is Caucasian, 70 percent of people arrested for marijuana are Black. At least 93 percent of the people arrested for marijuana in New York City between January to March of 2018 were people of color.

Mosley noted that unless a provision about investing the profits from legal cannabis in communities of color that were negatively impacted by the drug war is addressed in the legislation, the state should not proceed with legalizing cannabis "until we know that these injustices of the past are made right."

Other states like California have provisions in the law which will reduce or expunge marijuana convictions for people convicted of possession of less than an ounce of weed. Rhode Island also has legislation expunging marijuana convictions for possession of less than an ounce.

Civil Rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton wrote an op-ed for NBC News and is happy that Gov. Cuomo has decided to make the legalization of cannabis in New York State a priority in 2019. Sharpton wrote that he sees legalizing recreational marijuana as a way to march towards racial justice and combat America's systemic inequalities.

"Legalizing marijuana is a civil rights cause that the National Action Network has championed for years because of the potential economic benefit for low-income communities across the country, and thus we commend the governor for taking the lead on this issue. With Democratic majorities in both the Senate and Assembly and policy momentum on our side, there is no better time to act," noted Sharpton.

He continued to say that the state of New York has a long, dark history of racism regarding enforcing drug policy which directly deprived minorities of educational, housing, and employment opportunities. "For decades, New York's dark history of racist and classist drug enforcement policies deprived countless black and brown residents across the state of access to education, employment, federal housing and the right to vote, ruining the livelihoods of individuals and families."

Cannabis Tax Could Repair New York's Subways

downward shot of new york city street

A new report from the New York University Rudin Center for Transportation Policy says that legalizing cannabis in New York state and taxing it could provide the much-needed funds for repairing and updating the subway system. "The legalization of recreational cannabis offers New York State a unique opportunity to generate a new revenue stream dedicated to mass transit," said the report.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is responsible for the buses, bridges, subway system, commuter rail, and tunnels in the state and needs $40 billion to replace signal equipment. The current signal equipment is more than a century old and an infrastructure built for today's technology is needed. An estimated $4 billion is needed for the subway system, and state leaders believe that a cannabis tax could pay for the new infrastructure.

The New York City Council agrees that the subway system is desperately in need of an update. "The biggest issue we hear about as elected officials is the state of the subway system. To be able to tie these things together is something that could be highly impactful and potentially transformative," said council speaker Corey Johnson about the proposed cannabis tax.

With the governor and Sharpton, the New York Department of Health, and the New York City Council all pushing for the legalization of cannabis in New York State, it is quite possible that recreational marijuana may legal in New York during 2019. That'll make for a very happy new year for the people of New York.