Why Does the New York State Department of Health Want to Legalize Marijuana?

Acknowledging that his previous opposition to marijuana legalization was being undercut by popular opinion and the spread of legalization in nearby states such as Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) in January called for an assessment of the possible impact of legalizing the herb in the state. The state Health Department was charged with the task.

It reviewed the possible health, public health, public safety, criminal justice, economic, and educational impacts of shifting from pot prohibition to a system allowing for the legal, regulated production, distribution, and use of marijuana. To do so, the department examined the experience of legalization in other states as well as conducted an extensive analysis of peer-reviewed literature on the subject. It also consulted with other state agencies and experts in the fields of public health, mental health, substance use disorders, public safety, transportation, and economics to help come up with a comprehensive review.

Last week, the Health Department released itsreport. Here is its bottom line:

"The positive effects of a regulated marijuana market in NYS outweigh the potential negative impacts. Areas that may be a cause for concern can be mitigated with regulation and proper use of public education that is tailored to address key populations. Incorporating proper metrics and indicators will ensure rigorous and ongoing evaluation."

In other words: Just legalize it.

So, how did the Health Department support this conclusion? The report's executive summary lays out its findings in the realms of health, the criminal justice system, economic impact, and the impact of legalization in nearby states. (Click on the summary for a full explanation of the logic behind the bullet points below.)

Health

  • Regulating marijuana reduces risk and improves quality control and consumer protection.

  • Marijuana may reduce opioid deaths and opioid prescribing.

  • Marijuana has intrinsic health benefits and risks.

  • Marijuana can have effects on mental health.

  • Regulation leads to little or no increase in adult use, and there is little evidence that regulation leads to an increase in use by youth.

  • Regulating marijuana may lead to a reduction in the use of synthetic cannabinoids/novel psychoactive substances.

Criminal Justice

  • Marijuana prohibition results in disproportionate criminalization of racial and ethnic minority groups.

  • Incarceration has a negative impact on families and communities.

  • Research is varied on the impact of regulated marijuana on motor vehicle traffic crashes.

Economics

  • Regulating marijuana will create jobs.

  • Market size and potential State revenues. The department estimated annual state marijuana sales revenues at between $1.7 billion and $3.5 billion, with estimated state and local tax revenues at somewhere between $248 million and $677 million, depending on sales and tax rates.

  • Marijuana regulation could generate long-term cost savings.

Impact of Legalization in Surrounding Jurisdictions

  • Consumers are likely to cross borders to obtain marijuana, committing a federal felony in the process.

  • Legalization of marijuana causes a sharp increase in marijuana possession arrests in border counties of neighboring states.

  • Legalization in neighboring jurisdictions raises the likelihood of revenue flowing from New York into those jurisdictions.

In its conclusion, the report called for harm reduction principles to be an integral part of legalization and pointed out that legalization would allow regulation (which prohibition prevents) for "quality control and consumer protection." It also emphasized that tax revenues could "support community reinvestment" and that legalization would "reduce disproportionate criminalization and incarceration of racial and ethnic minority communities."

That last point is a fundamental justice issue. As the report notes, in the past 20 years, more than 800,000 people have been arrested just for pot possession in the state, the vast majority of them young people of color.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which has been advocating for marijuana legalization in the state (and elsewhere) for years, pronounced itself pleased with the report's conclusions and urged Albany to get moving. A legalization bill, theMarihuana Regulation and Taxation Act (S.3040), is currently under consideration by the legislature and should be acted on, the group said.

"We are pleased that the governor and the State Department of Health have fully studied the existing evidence and accurately concluded that legalizing marijuana for adult use is the right choice for New York. Marijuana prohibition has devastated our communities, saddled hundreds of thousands with criminal records, acted as an easily accessible tool for racially biased policing, and stunted the opportunities for entire generations of mostly New Yorkers of color," said DPA policy coordinator Chris Alexander.

"Now that the report has been released and its conclusions presented, we are hopeful that the Governor and the Legislature can fully shift to examining the 'how' and move on from the 'if.' Any movement to legalize marijuana must also include broad record clearing provisions, must create a diverse and inclusive industry, and guarantee significant community reinvestment to repair the harm that has been done. We look forward to engaging with the governor's office and the legislature on the ways to best move New York forward."

Will Albany act to make New York the next state to free the weed? It wouldn't take an act of political courage: Some 62 percent of New Yorkers support making marijuana use legal for adults over 21, and more than 60 percent support taxing and regulating marijuana as a way to address the state's looming budget deficit.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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