Marijuana Policy in New York: Time for Change


This week, State Sen. Liz Krueger introduced a bill to tax and regulate marijuana for adult use in New York.

The bill would end the criminalization of adults 18 years and older who possess up to two ounces of marijuana and would create a regulatory system allowing for the retail sale of marijuana to those over the age of 21, much like the current system for regulating alcohol.

New York State is estimated to spend approximately $675 million a year enforcing marijuana possession laws. The vast majority of those arrested (85 percent) are Black and Latino, mostly young men, even though numerous government studies report that young white men use marijuana at higher rates.

Fixing New York’s marijuana laws would save hundreds of millions every year, which could be reinvested into the community, increasing the quality of life for all New Yorkers. By enacting a regulatory framework, the state could capture tax revenue that is currently largely under the control of criminal enterprises.

“Prohibition of marijuana is a policy that just hasn’t worked, no matter how you look at it, and it’s time to have an honest conversation about what we should do next,” said Sen. Krueger. “The illegal marijuana economy is alive and well, and our unjust laws are branding nonviolent New Yorkers, especially young adults, as criminals, creating a vicious cycle that ruins lives and needlessly wastes taxpayer dollars. Worst of all, this system has resulted in a civil rights disaster: African Americans are dramatically more likely to be arrested for pot possession than whites, despite similar rates of marijuana use among both groups.”

A national shift on drug policies is underway. Recent polls show a majority of Americans now support taxing and regulating marijuana. In 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first jurisdictions in the world to approve legal regulation of marijuana. This week, Uruguay made history by becoming the first country to approve responsible regulation for the production, distribution, and sale of marijuana.

Although some New York officials may not be ready to publicly support efforts for legalization – Gov. Andrew Cuomo referred to the legalization bill as a “non-starter” – nearly everyone agrees that New York’s current policies around marijuana are broken. This is clearly demonstrated by the number of reform proposals related to marijuana policy reform that are under consideration in Albany, including a proposal led by Gov. Cuomo to standardize marijuana possession laws that would reduce unlawful, biased, and costly marijuana possession arrests, and the widely supported Compassionate Care Act, sponsored by Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and Sen. Diane Savino, which would make medical marijuana available to seriously ill patients under a tightly regulated system.

With growing consensus around the failures of prohibition, 2014 may be the year that New York fixes its marijuana laws by providing compassion and relief to patients who suffer from serious and debilitating conditions and by reducing the tens of thousands of racially biased and fiscally wasteful marijuana arrests that have saddled so many New Yorkers with a lifelong criminal record. These reforms not only would restore compassion and fairness, but would allow the state to refocus public safety resources and save millions of taxpayer dollars in reduced law enforcement costs.

New York has an opportunity now to join the movement towards developing new and effective approaches to drug policy.

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