On January 11, 2018, the New York State Assembly Standing Committees on Codes, Health, and Alcohol and Drug Abuse held a public hearing to discuss the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA, S.3040B/A.3506B), a bill that would legalize the production, distribution, and use of marijuana for adults over the age of 21. This bill will effectively end marijuana prohibition in New York State and would create a system to tax and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol.
The hearing comes amid a wave of marijuana policy reform nationally. Increasingly, jurisdictions and legislators across the country are realizing that marijuana prohibition has been ineffective, unjust, and disproportionately enforced and are working to implement regulatory systems that are fair and effective. Eight states and the District of Columbia have voted to legalize marijuana for adult use and legalization bills are pending in New Jersey, where the governor-elect has pledged to legalize marijuana in his first 100 days in office; New Hampshire, whose House voted to legalize marijuana this Tuesday; and Vermont, whose Senate approved a legalization bill on Wednesday, paving the way to become the first state to legalize through the legislative process (prior states were via ballot initiative). Massachusetts and Canada are in the process of implementing legalization and expect their legal markets to come online this summer.
At the federal level, last week U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole memo, which previously instructed the Department of Justice to allow states to implement their own marijuana laws with limited federal interference, setting up a showdown with states that have legal marijuana markets and signaling an attempted double down on the draconian war on drugs.
Momentum for marijuana reform is building steadily in New York. A poll of New York voters released in late 2017 showed that 62% of New Yorkers support making marijuana use legal in New York for adults over 21, and more than 60% prefer using the revenue from a legal marijuana market to address New York’s budget deficit over other options for closing the looming budget gap.
“After decades of arresting marijuana users, the drug war has failed to prevent marijuana use or prevent minors from accessing marijuana. Existing marijuana laws have created a violent, illegal drug market that consumes $675 million of New York’s dollars in criminal justice resources each year. Drug laws have also created a permanent underclass with people unable to find jobs after a conviction. One of the most damaging issues derived from the war on drugs is that the policies are inherently racist.” said Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the Assembly sponsor of the MRTA.
“Marijuana prohibition is a failed and outdated policy that has done tremendous damage to too many of our communities. Allowing adult personal use, with appropriate regulation and taxation, will end the heavily racialized enforcement that disproportionately impacts African American and Latino New Yorkers, locking them out of jobs, housing, and education, and feeding the prison pipeline. It’s time for smart, responsible, 21st century policy that reflects the best science and the real needs of New Yorkers,” said Senator Liz Krueger, the Senate sponsor of the MRTA.
The hearing featured testimony calling for an end to marijuana prohibition in New York from a broad spectrum of advocates, including representatives from civil rights, criminal justice reform, medical researchers and doctors, regulators from states with legal marijuana, medical marijuana advocates, policing experts, immigration rights advocates, former law enforcement, and drug policy reform.
Advocates highlighted the highly destructive impact of the ongoing marijuana arrest crusade and the extreme racial disparities: New York State has arrested 800,000 for possession of small amounts of marijuana over the last 20 years, with over 700,000 arrests by the NYPD alone. Marijuana possession arrests still topped 23,000 in 2016 and the collateral consequences stemming from marijuana possession arrests remain. Although drug use occurs at similar rates across racial and ethnic groups, Black and Latino individuals are arrested for possessing marijuana at vastly disproportionate rates. In 2016, more than 85% of all those arrested for marijuana possession were Black and Latino; nearly 70% of those arrested were under 30 years old; and over a third were under 21 years old.
Testimony at the hearing also underscored marijuana legalization through the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act as a criminal justice reform issue, as the MRTA will eliminate one of the top misdemeanor arrests from the state’s penal law; will enable those with previous convictions for marijuana-related offenses to have those offenses either sealed, vacated, or otherwise reclassified, thereby increasing opportunity for thousands of New Yorkers; and remove a positive marijuana test as justification for violating a person’s parole or probation. It will also address the devastating impacts of marijuana prohibition in the fields of immigration and family law, and protect against discrimination in housing and employment based on a prior marijuana arrest or off-the-clock marijuana use.
“Instead of criminalizing people for marijuana possession and leaving them with criminal records that land them in deportation, the money saved must be invested into communities of color who have borne the brunt of this form of hyper-criminalization to create economic justice to restore the harms of this failed policy,” said Anthony Posada, Community Justice Unit of the Legal Aid Society.
Doctors and medical researchers present testified that access to a legal marijuana market, both medical marijuana and adult use, has been associated with significantly lower deaths from opioid overdose than in states without legal marijuana deaths—data from the researchers’ study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association show a 25 percent drop in deadly overdoses, resulting in 1,700 fewer deaths in 2010 alone—pointing to marijuana as a potential tool for people struggling to end opioid use. Given marijuana’s pain-relieving benefits, it presents a promising solution to reducing the risks for misuse, dependence, overdose associated with opioid use. Marijuana alone will not be the answer to New York’s problem with opioid misuse and overdose deaths, but available evidence indicates that it should be used with other harm reduction strategies as part of a necessarily diverse and innovative approach to this combatting this crisis.
“The available evidence suggests that medical marijuana laws are associated with decreases in prescriptions for pain medications and decreases in opioid overdose fatalities,” said Julia H. Arnsten, MD, MPH, Professor of Medicine and Chief Division of Internal Medicine, Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine [speaking on her own behalf]. “While decriminalization and regulation policies are relatively new and studies are preliminary, the available evidence suggests that decriminalization and regulation of marijuana can further expand access to marijuana for medical patients and decrease use of opioid pain relievers.”
Witnesses with experience regulating marijuana markets in other states and drug policy reform advocates testified about outcomes in the eight states and the District of Columbia have now ended marijuana prohibition. Revenue from the regulated marijuana market is giving those states an opportunity to rebuild crumbling infrastructure, support education, and invest in communities. Data on marijuana use and public safety from states with legal markets show that marijuana legalization has had no discernible negative impact in those areas. And, most importantly, residents of those states no longer face the threat of criminalization because of their personal use.
“Given the data and evidence to date, the legalization of cannabis has been successful in jurisdictions across the country so far. Youth use and access has decreased in Colorado since 2012. In Washington D.C., there have been significant decreases in arrests for marijuana–from 4,000 arrests prior to only 12 following legalization,” said Dr. Malik Burnett, Resident Physician in the Johns Hopkins General Preventive Medicine Program [speaking on his own behalf].
Testimony also covered how the MRTA encourages diversity and builds inclusivity in New York’s marijuana industry by only explicitly barring people with business-related convictions (such as fraud or tax evasion) from receiving licenses. To increase gender diversity in ownership within the marijuana industry, the MRTA requires entities that receive a license to outline specific actions they will take to produce a workforce that resembles the community in which the license is used, in line with New York’s Minority and Women-Owned Businesses initiative.
“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,” said Shaleen Title, Commissioner with the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission [speaking on her own behalf] and founding board member of the Minority Cannabis Business Association. “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. 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.”
Other advocates touched on how marijuana prohibition impacts noncitizen immigrants. Because our country’s harsh immigration laws mandate severe punishment for a wide range of drug offenses, New York’s marijuana policies help fuel the mass deportation agenda. The past year saw a 900% increase in courthouse arrests of immigrants by ICE agents in New York, in many cases when someone who is a noncitizen was appearing for a minor offense, including low-level marijuana possession.
“It is time that New York State joins the cadre of progressive states that are acting smart on marijuana regulation. New York City was for many years the marijuana arrest capital of the world and the devastation that wreaked on people of color and marginalized communities cannot be overstated. 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,” said Juan Cartagena, President and General Counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF.
“We at National Action Network understand that marijuana legalization will not be a panacea, but we do believe that marijuana legalization is a necessary step in our fight for a criminal justice system which is free of racial bias,” said Brandon Hicks of National Action Network.
“In the last five years, people of color made up 77 percent of marijuana possession arrests in Erie County, though they make up just 18 percent of the population,” said Andrea Ó Súilleabháin of the Partnership for the Public Good. “We know that young people of color use marijuana at slightly lower rates than white people, so this disparity cannot be explained by use. This is one local result of the war on drugs, which has tended to target low-level offenses in non-white, low-income communities. This unequal enforcement of marijuana prohibition comes at a high cost for communities of color.”
“Marijuana legalization is a smart choice for New Yorkers because criminalizing marijuana drives broken windows policing; targets near-exclusively the poor and people of color; leads to unnecessary interactions between citizens and police officers; creates the traumatizing experience of arrest and prosecution, and in some cases deportation; and costs taxpayers an absolute fortune. As long as marijuana is criminalized, we cannot say that New York is a progressive state,” said Scott Hechinger, Senior Staff Attorney and Director of Policy, Brooklyn Defender Services.
“Prohibition has played a significant role in devastating low-income communities of color through racially biased enforcement and has often come with steep collateral consequences. We believe it’s time for a new approach and that approach shouldn’t involve criminalizing New York’s most vulnerable populations,” said Alyssa Aguilera, Co-Executive Director of VOCAL-NY.
“The vast majority of adults are unharmed by the responsible use of cannabis. The health risks of cannabis misuse are significantly less than those of alcohol and tobacco. And evidence does not support a causal ‘gateway’ relationship between the use of cannabis and the later use of more harmful drugs,” said Dr. Julie Holland, a psychiatrist specializing in psychopharmacology with a private practice in New York City. “Legalization and regulation benefits public health by enabling government oversight of the production, testing, labeling, distribution, and sale of cannabis. 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.”
“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,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “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.”
Gov. Cuomo and many New York State Senators and Assemblymembers as well as elected officials across the state have publicly vowed to fight the Trump administration to protect New Yorkers’ rights when it comes to immigration, women’s rights, and civil liberties. We need those who claim to be allies of the most vulnerable New Yorkers to pass legislation to tax and regulate marijuana, so we can end the marijuana arrest crusade and focus on building up our state instead of destroying lives.