A Seismic Shift on Legal Pot

The May 18 front page of the Daily News. | NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Call it shop for pot, adult use, or tax and regulate, legalization makes a boast that Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio would never utter — use by youth 12 to 17 years will decli

Reluctantly, the governor and the mayor are shifting their postures from anti to pro as the examples of Colorado and Washington State prove irresistible. Cuomo calls it “new facts,” with border state Massachusetts recently having legalized and Connecticut, Vermont, and New Jersey busy making plans.

At a press availability on May 23, de Blasio said, “I think the handwriting is on the wall. The governor makes a perfectly fair point. Massachusetts has it, the governor of New Jersey is actively fighting for it, I presume will ultimately get it. The world is changing around us… I think it's inevitable in New York State… It can't happen this year, I would argue, because of the current Senate.”

Last Friday’s screaming headline on the front page of the Daily News endorsing legalization seemed to capture a critical turning point in the public debate about legalizing marijuana.

As soon as he realized that New York’s racist crusade against pot would be put to a vote with Cynthia Nixon’s primary challenge, Cuomo shoved his commission to study the issue onto the front burner. The polls show 61 percent of Americans favor legalization.

Experience in other states, racial arrest pattern, tax benefits are all factors

Last week, Scott Stringer, the New York City comptroller, released a careful analysis of the taxes imposed in the two western states where marijuana has been legal for several years now. A similar tax scheme in New York State would produce $1.3 billion in painless new revenue every year, the comptroller concluded.

Stringer’s study followed a front page article in the New York Times that stripped away the NYPD’s last alibi for arresting or fining black and brown New Yorkers for possessing pot while giving whites a free pass. The NYPD tried to tell Donovan Richards, the chair of the City Council Committee on Public Safety, that they receive more complaints about pot in neighborhoods populated predominately by people of color.

Not so said the Times, after going to the trouble of matching the smallest unit of the census to the boundaries of police precincts. Enforcement is harsher in black and brown census blocks, even in cases where white neighborhoods complain as often as minority ones.

The seismic shift in public opinion left law enforcement officials scrambling. What should they do before legalization can be voted on in 2019? The Manhattan and Brooklyn district attorneys issued a press release about their plans to meet with the police to reduce arrests. The new policies are under development but will likely include continued penalties for smoking in public.

But it was left to Stringer to quietly make the case that legalization will benefit New York State. Legalization will erase criminal records, which “would open doors that have been closed to too many for too long, yielding incalculable human, economic, and societal benefits.”

The fiscal benefits are twofold: a reduction in criminal justice expenses imposed by pot arrests and an increase in revenue from taxes on the sale of legal product. Leaving aside the reduced spending on law enforcement, Stringer’s economist calculated $436 million in revenues for the state, $336 million for the city, and some $570 million for suburban and upstate localities.

That revenue boost for the city would pay for public transportation half-fares for the very poor and still leave another $136 million for other purposes.

Another benefit is unanticipated. Washington State and Colorado, the two states with years of experience with legalization, found that use by middle school and high school students has dropped. With legalization, access is limited to those 18 and above, leaving those younger finding it more difficult to score pot.

A final potential benefit is a reduction in opiate overdoses as users turn away from those addictive drugs to marijuana to deal with pain.