Earlier this month, New York City’s First Lady Chirlane McCray revealed that she supports marijuana legalization because she does not believe individuals should be disciplined or punished for using it, but she warned that “it should be highly regulated” and that individuals see it as a “cash cow.”
But what exactly pushed her to jump on the pro-legalization bandwagon?
In a telephone interview with Observer on Monday afternoon, McCray—who is considering running for office in 2021—weighed in on how her thinking has evolved on the issue, her thoughts regarding her husband Mayor Bill de Blasio’s hesitation, her concerns about addiction particularly among young people, her own past marijuana use and racial disparities in marijuana enforcement.
“Well first of all, from working with Thrive, it’s made me much more sensitive to issues of addiction and substance misuse, but also the criminalization of marijuana makes it really hard for those who are addicted… the fact that people get locked up for it, it also makes it more complicated,” McCray told Observer, referring to her $850 million Thrive NYC mental health initiative launched in 2015.
She called for a public health approach, arguing that people need to think of marijuana as another substance that can be used recreationally “and people are fine” but can also be misused—specifically “by our young people whose brains are still developing.”
“What made me get to, ‘It should be legalized’… fentanyl and heroine was probably the tipping point for me,” she continued. “Recognizing that the marijuana of today is not the marijuana of the ’60s. It’s very different. It’s much more potent. People don’t know what’s in it and if it was legalized, at least people would be safer.”
McCray said her primary concern is from a health perspective and her secondary concern is about who profits from the “new emerging economic benefits of legalization.”
She noted that in Washington, where marijuana is legal, marijuana sales are expected to hit $730 million over the next two years—money she says should be going to underserved communities and behavioral health services.
“We need to be thoughtful about where we go so that people of color… are not shut out of those business and economic opportunities, but we must also be cognizant that we do not have a coordinated mental health system in this country, we do not have dedicated funding for behavioral health services and this is an opportunity to direct that money in that direction, especially in communities of color,” McCray added.
McCray’s position is in stark contrast with that of de Blasio, who has expressed support for a study Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that would examine the possible effects of marijuana legalization in nearby states such as New Jersey on New York but remains opposed to marijuana legalization.
The First Lady denied that she and de Blasio disagree.
“People said that I disagree with my husband. I don’t actually disagree with him… We both are really in the same place,” she maintained. “I favor legalization. He’s more cautious, as he should be, because I think we’re not having the right conversation. It has to be much broader than it is.”
When Observer noted the fact that McCray has backed legalization while de Blasio has not, she said they share the same concerns but suggested that being an elected official puts him in a different position.
“Because he’s an elected official, he has the responsibility of making sure that the conversation is broader, that all of the concern that I just talked about and more are addressed before he comes to a decision on the position,” she contended. “And even though I say I am for legalization, I have those concerns.”
And despite the fact that she has publicized her support for legalization, she insists she’s not putting pressure on de Blasio to make a decision. When Observer asked if she ever texts or emails links to articles about legalization and its benefits, she said she does not.
“No, no, I do not,” McCray said. “We have a lot of other things to talk about.”
In September 2016, then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said marijuana is not a “specific gateway.” And earlier this month, two studies in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal found that medical marijuana can help combat the opioid epidemic by reducing the number of opioid prescriptions.
McCray said she has spoken with licensed and trained experts from around the country who work with individuals who misuse substances and suffer from addiction. One of those experts is Dr. Hillary Kunins, an assistant commissioner at the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), where she heads the Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Use—Prevention, Care and Treatment.
McCray argued that any drug can be a gateway drug and some people are predisposed to addiction.
“So to say that because we’re all different, we all have different chemical makeups and dispositions, you can’t make a blanket statement like that,” she warned. “Some people can be very hurt by this.”
She noted that in New York City, there are more than 40,000 hospital alcohol emergency room visits every year and pointed to the issues of people driving drunk and high school and college students using legal prescription drugs “so freely.”
McCray also expressed uncertainty that legalization is a solution to the opioid epidemic.
“It’s possible, but I don’t think that in this case that that would be a reason for legalization,” she continued. “There’s certainly no one solution to the opioid epidemic, there just isn’t. And any drug can be abused. So I don’t know that marijuana is an answer to the opioid epidemic or even part of an answer.”
Given her concerns about young people misusing substances, would she be OK with her children, Dante and Chiara, smoking marijuana? McCray expressed a mixed view.
“Well we haven’t discussed it over the dinner table,” McCray admitted. “Certainly as I support legalization, then I wouldn’t be opposed to them smoking, but again it’s not as though I’m promoting it either. I’m not promoting it. I would be very happy if no one under the age of 25 was allowed to smoke pot.”
Indeed, she says she is not opposed to her children smoking marijuana recreationally but would prefer if they did not do so.
“I would be happier if they didn’t,” she added.
McCray herself started smoking marijuana when she was in high school, though not regularly. She told Observer she did not really have access to it until she was older because she “didn’t have much money.” She smoked when she was in her 20s and “found it to be habit-forming.”
“I had difficulty stopping,” McCray recalled. “I actually went to therapy and that was immensely helpful for me because I didn’t want to be dependent on [a] substance. So you can say I know first hand that marijuana can be habit-forming, addicting, and I know I’m not alone. But no, it did not lead me to using other substances.”
As to getting other politicians to see past the stigma associated with weed, she said she’s “glad they have that stigma,” arguing that it is better for people to be cautious and that it’s right “to do the studies and to consider all the angles.”
“I hope it takes a long time,” McCray argued, referring to legalizing marijuana in New York. “I hope it takes time because we have to have a broader conversation, and I don’t hear that conversation yet.”
In 2017, roughly 86 percent of people arrested for marijuana possession in the fifth degree—possessing less than two ounces in a public place—were people of color.
McCray said that there were 61,000 total marijuana arrests in de Blasio’s first three years compared to 112,000 such arrests in former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first three years. She also said marijuana arrests are down 37 percent across all demographics since 2013, down 40 percent for blacks and Latinos and summonses are up 33 percent.
When Observer asked about the fact that racial disparities persist despite a policy revision in 2014, she acknowledged it.
“Disparities come with all of our crime, unfortunately,” she admitted. “We just have to keep getting better. We have to continue making improvements, and we are very focused on it from the statistics I gave you… We have to do more. We are locked on and committed to making it better.”