This week, Vermont and New Hampshire moved to legalize cannabis for adult use, signifying a major step in states’ acceptance of the plant along the East Coast, and in their opposition to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ tenacious stance.
In New York, where legislators have largely left drug laws unchanged, and where marijuana arrest rates continue to lead the nation, a panel of lawmakers will now hear testimony from some of the state’s most experienced–and patient–advocates for reform.
On Thursday morning, the New York State Assembly Standing Committees on Codes, Health, and Alcohol and Drug Abuse will convene a public hearing to discuss the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), aimed to legalize the use, distribution, and production of cannabis for adults aged 21 and over.
As part of their research on the bill, which was floated to little effect in previous assembly sessions, the legislative panel will hear testimony from a range of medical, legal, and policy experts in the state who are calling for an end to the ban.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit focusing on drug reform advocacy and education, and which helped to build and promote the bill, MRTA would create a system to tax and regulate marijuana in a similar way to alcohol, and “effectively end marijuana prohibition in New York State.”
On the whole, New Yorkers have increasingly indicated that they’re ready to ‘green-light’ the state’s cannabis industry. Late last year, a poll found that around 62% favored legalization, while more than 60% supported its taxation and regulation for the sake of addressing New York’s budget deficit.
As the country’s leader in marijuana arrests, New York was estimated to have spent over $1 billion on enforcement between 2002 and 2012, and $675 million in 2010 alone. Experts have also estimated that the state spends between $1,000 and $2,000 in police, court, and jail costs to process each arrest for simple marijuana possession.
Today’s testimony comes from representatives of such legal, immigrant, and human rights groups as LatinoJustice, the National Action Network, Brooklyn Defender Services, the Legal Aid Society, VOCAL-NY, and the Partnership for the Public Good, as well as numerous medical professionals and researchers.
In addition to the cost of enforcing prohibition and the benefits and relative safety of marijuana, speakers will emphasize the enormous impacts that New York drug laws have had on immigrants, communities of color, young people, and state residents as a whole.
Since 1997, New York State has performed more than 800,000 arrests related to cannabis, with the vast majority being for small-scale possession or use in public (not distribution), as is the case with arrests in the rest of the U.S., according to Start SMART NY. Today, the state’s population is close to 19.75 million, meaning marijuana arrests have occurred at a rate of nearly 1 per 25 residents in the past two decades.
While possession is now considered a ticket-able violation in New York, and not a crime, nearly 23,000 people were nevertheless arrested across the state in 2016, close to a 2300% increase from 1990, according to research compiled by the DPA. And while New York’s Black and Latino populations account for just over a third of the state’s total residents, more than 80% of people arrested annually for marijuana possession in the state belong to those groups, researchers say.
For Black New York residents, marijuana arrests rates are approximately 4.5 times that of white residents, despite the fact that use patterns that hold steady across all ethnic groups, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report. Predominantly, those arrested are teens and young adults in some of the state’s poorest areas. In many documented cases, marijuana enforcement has led to arrestees’ and bystanders’ deaths.
Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director for the DPA, said her testimony today will address the massive scope of marijuana prohibition in New York to date, which has forced thousands of mostly Black and Latino residents to lose access to work and social benefits, accept strict plea bargains, and get stuck on Riker’s Island in lieu of costly bail, among other things.
Frederique commented by email, “New York’s marijuana arrest crusade has resulted in significant harms for those who are most vulnerable and has been used as a justification for the hyper-policing of communities of color, funneling tens of thousands of New Yorkers into the maze of the criminal justice system every year and putting people at risk of deportation, losing custody of their children, and barring them from employment and housing for nothing more than possessing small amounts of marijuana.”
She continued, “As New York finally sheds its embarrassing distinction of being the marijuana arrest capital of the world, we must repair the harms of prohibition and end the biased policing practices that have ruined the lives of so many young Black and Latino New Yorkers. Ultimately, the best way to address the disparities and challenges posed by prohibition is to legalize and regulate marijuana in New York.”
Juan Cartagena, President and General Counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, also plans to tell legislators that New York can no longer wait on the sidelines, and continue to jail residents at the highest national rates, while other states are tackling the work of meaningful drug reform.
“It is time that New York State joins the cadre of progressive states that are acting smart on marijuana regulation,” Cartagena commented by email. “We need to pivot and address the pressing needs of regulation while simultaneously eliminating the criminal consequences of marijuana possession and restoring the previous harms that prohibitionist modalities created. In short, we need New York State to help lead a marijuana revolution, because it’s just, it’s rational, and it’s time.”
Shaleen Title, Commissioner with the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission and founding board member of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, will also be on hand to emphasize the need for one of the country’s most populous and well-known state to get its cannabis laws and enforcement plans in good order. Speaking on her own behalf, Title commented by email, “With marijuana legalization we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be honest and intentional in addressing the past harms conducted by our respective states in the name of the war on drugs.”
“The worst thing we could do right now would be to regress to a time when prohibition and regressive policies like the Rockefeller Drug Laws took root,” Title continued. “I hope New York will join Massachusetts instead in creating the future that most Americans want–an equitable, safely regulated industry with new jobs and tax revenue.”
In acknowledgement of longstanding U.S. myths about cannabis as a dangerous, ‘gateway’ drug, which a handful of top lawmakers still promote, medical experts will seek to finally put these ideas to rest at today’s hearing, too.
Dr. Julie Holland, a psychiatrist specializing in psychopharmacology who operates a private practice in New York City, explained by email, “The vast majority of adults are unharmed by the responsible use of cannabis, [while] health risks of cannabis misuse are significantly less than those of alcohol and tobacco.”
Importantly, Holland added, “Evidence does not support a causal ‘gateway’ relationship between the use of cannabis and the later use of more harmful drugs.” However, public health and safety are indeed crucial considerations in this matter, she noted.
“Legalization and regulation benefits public health by enabling government oversight of the production, testing, labeling, distribution, and sale of cannabis,” she continued. To this end, Holland said, “I encourage the state of New York to join the growing number of states that are embracing the future, to legalize, tax, and regulate the sale of cannabis for adult use.”
It will ultimately be up to state legislators to decide how to handle this massive issue going forward, of course, but witnesses at today’s hearing hope that the evidence and experiences they share will help New York lawmakers’ state of mind of the subject to finally evolve. Given the decisions of several nearby states to overhaul their cannabis stances, Albany may currently be feeling more pressure than ever to keep up with the Joneses, or at to least see what all the fuss is about.
When it comes to acknowledging voters’ demands and the recommendations of legal and medical experts, at least, it seems that a certain kind of peer pressure may not be such a bad thing.