Legalizing Marijuana Makes Sense For New York

Photo Credit: Seth Perlman

Ending marijuana prohibition and taxing and regulating marijuana for adult use in New York is smart for our communities, for racial justice, and for our state’s economy. As the co-sponsor of the bill that would legalize the production, distribution, and use of marijuana for adults over the age of 21 in New York,

I have spent a great deal of time studying the outcomes of legalizing marijuana in the eight states and Washington, D.C. that have regulated marijuana markets. In his budget address last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a study of the implications of legalizing marijuana in New York; I think he will be interested in learning from the successful experiences of other states, as I have.

Each of these states has approached legalization differently and has distinct regulatory structures. Yet each state taxes and regulates marijuana in a manner similar to alcoholic beverages, with age limits, licensing requirements, quality controls, and other regulatory restrictions that are effective.

New York benefits from the experiences of other states that have already implemented this new regulatory approach to marijuana policy. New York policy makers can feel assured knowing that the sky did not fall in states like Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Alaska that have legalized the adult use of marijuana.

Evidence shows that marijuana legalization is working so far. States are saving money in court costs and protecting the public by redirecting law enforcement resources. Previously static economies have experienced a boom benefitting a variety of industries that has generated millions in tax revenue and created new jobs. Some states have also adopted policies that will help repair social and economic harms of damaged communities caused by prohibition and the failed war on drugs.

Available research shows marijuana legalization has a positive effect on public health and safety. Nationally, and in states that have legalized marijuana, youth marijuana use has remained stable or declined. In part, this is because the regulated marijuana market has made it possible for states to create age restrictions and other barriers to access for young people that could not exist under prohibition. In fact, statewide surveys of junior high to high school age students living in states with a recreational market have shown no significant increase in marijuana use among young people. Lifetime use has remained stable, as well as recent use.

New York is facing an unprecedented opioid overdose crisis. Legal access to marijuana is also associated with reductions in some of the most troubling harms associated with opioid use, including opioid overdose deaths and untreated opioid use disorders. In states with medical marijuana access, overdose death rates are almost 25 percent lower than in states with no legal access to marijuana, and the reductions in overdose death rates strengthened over time.

Road safety has not been negatively impacted in states with existing regulated marijuana markets. DUI arrests for driving under the influence (of alcohol and other drugs) have declined in Colorado and Washington, the first two states to establish legally regulated adult use marijuana markets. In addition, data shows there is no correlation between marijuana legalization and crash rates. In both states, crash rates have remained similar to those in comparable states that have not legalized marijuana.

Experiences in states with regulated marijuana markets also indicate that creating a system to tax and regulate marijuana for adult use would be a sound economic investment for New York. Colorado has now collected more than $500 million in taxes and fees from legal marijuana since retail sales began in 2014, with increased revenue projected for this year. Between January 2016 and March 2017, state and local governments in Washington and Oregon were able to collect over $80 million and $75 million, respectively, in tax revenue. There are more people in New York than all of these states combined, therefore New York would likely generate even larger revenues than these three states. For example, illicit marijuana sales in New York are estimated at $3 billion, and an official study by the NYC Comptroller in 2013 estimated potential tax revenue for a legal marijuana market in NYC alone would be more than $400 million, acknowledging that the actual revenue could be much higher.

The marijuana industry is also creating jobs. The legal marijuana industry currently employs approximately 200,000 full and part-time workers across the country. This number will only continue to grow as more states legalize marijuana and replace their unregulated markets with new legal markets–while many other industries like manufacturing continue to lose jobs.

The economic growth experienced as a result of legalization has also spread beyond the marijuana industry into related sectors including legal services, financial services, tourism, real estate, construction, and security. Additionally, legalization has provided an indirect boost to states’ coffers through enforcement and criminal justice savings, income tax revenues from newly created jobs, and retail tax revenues from increased consumer spending by the newly employed.

All of this suggests that legalization could serve as a better option for reducing unemployment than continuing to rely on shrinking industries. However, state marijuana laws must create avenues for participation by Black and Latino people and low-income people in order to avoid establishing new barriers to employment for the persons and communities most harmed by marijuana prohibition. Such measures, which are included in the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, will help New York begin to repair its legacy of racially disparate marijuana enforcement.

Nationally, legalization presents a unique and much-needed racial equity and economic justice opportunity, while reinvesting in communities most damaged by this country’s failed war on drugs. For New York — the marijuana arrest capital of the world — legalization offers a chance to assume an active role in repairing the harms of the drug war, particularly for the state’s most vulnerable communities. The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) — the legislation I co-sponsor with Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, for ending prohibition in New York — directs marijuana tax revenue to education and job training in communities most harmed by the drug war, as well as drug prevention and health services for New Yorkers.

There is no reason why New York, a global economic powerhouse, should not be able to provide its residents with the same opportunities that are being afforded to individuals in states that are generating millions of dollars in revenue from legalization. New York State has the potential to generate billions of dollars in all types of tax revenues from the legalization of marijuana.