There is a difference between righting injustice and actively promoting a drug lifestyle in order to boost a state’s balance sheet and appeal to young voters.
At issue is the disparate sentencing over marijuana possession, creating economic development/entrepreneurial opportunities for disadvantaged communities, and making medical marijuana as available as any other prescription drug.
But states and some localities are speeding ahead to get on the recreational weed bandwagon.
Indeed, you can’t walk down any street in Manhattan without being overcome by the sickening smell of pot, or seeing those leafy green Weed World trucks on every other corner. I wonder why there isn’t the same public health concern over second-hand smoke and drinking alcohol on public streets?
The argument that marijuana is no more harmful or habit-forming than drinking alcohol and is not a gateway drug to more harmful drugs doesn’t wash with me. And the jury is still out on what impact marijuana will have on developing brains. The claims that cannabis will be kept out of hands of young people, will not contribute to DUI or impact workplace safety strikes me as absurdly Pollyannaish. So is the suggestion that somehow making marijuana readily available will somehow cut down on opioid abuse and death (opioid deaths surged in 2021 to nearly 100,000).
There is one claim that does make sense: making cannibis legal will cut down on illegal use and sale. Indeed, the focus is on the economic benefits of states capturing the sales tax revenue from what is projected to be a $30 billion industry this year, dollars that would otherwise be lost, and to create new entrepreneurial, economic development pathways for the very communities victimized by unjust drug prosecution. (18,000 languishing in prison for nonviolent marijuana possession have petitioned the Biden administration for clemency; Biden just granted 78 clemency.)
“Marijuana legalization is one of the easiest ways to boost the economies of states still recovering from the pandemic – not to mention addressing longstanding racial inequities in our criminal justice system,” a missive from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee reads. “So it’s no surprise that Republicans are siding with the 8% of Americans who think marijuana should be completely illegal.”
Manhattan/Brooklyn Congressman Jerry Nadler writes to Moveon.org members, “For far too long, marijuana’s legal status has been used as an excuse for police to harass and oppress communities of color. It happens here in my hometown of New York City and across the country.” Nadler is reintroducing “the most sweeping legislation to transform these laws,” the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act.
“Black Americans are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges than white Americans, a racist enforcement strategy that has overcrowded our prison system with non-violent offenders and fueled ‘tough on crime’ propaganda,” Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution campaign writes in support of the Senate passing the MORE Act, championing an issue that helped make him such a darling for young voters and Baby Boomers.
“While people’s lives are being destroyed by archaic prohibition laws and a racist prison industrial complex, companies are making money on cannabis in states where it’s legal,” the Vermont senator says. “We need equity and justice. It’s high time we legalize it for all and expunge the records of those arrested for marijuana possession.”
I have no complaint with the MORE Act, which would provide relief and criminal expungements to communities ravaged by the racist enforcement of marijuana prohibition; remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, which also will pave the way for more medical research; give the state legal marijuana industry the same access to financial services and tax treatment as legal businesses; provide a road map for states to legalize marijuana in a just and equitable way; enable veterans to get medical cannabis recommendations from VA doctors; and remove the threat of deportation for immigrants accused of minor marijuana infractions.
But correcting injustice is very different from promoting a cannabis culture.
New York state is embracing the cannabis-growing industry with relish. The industry is projected to be worth $7 billion in this state and generate $1.25 billion in revenue from taxes and fees related to recreational cannabis in six years. At the same time, the state is mounting an obligatory “public education” campaign to warn of the dangers of impaired driving, the risks of youth cannabis use, how to store cannabis in your home, and how to respectfully consume cannabis in public.
“Part of us building the strongest cannabis industry in the nation is making sure New Yorkers have relevant facts at their fingertips, and we remind all New Yorkers as they join 4/20 celebrations today that it’s never safe to drive high, you shouldn’t consume cannabis in disruptive ways, and cannabis can damage growing brains in youth,” Gov. Hochul said on April 20, the unofficial “cannabis holiday.”
Earlier this month, New York’s Cannabis Control Board approved 52 Adult-use Cannabis Conditional Cultivator Licenses across the state, including three on the East End of Long Island, from a pool of 150.
“New York’s farms have been the backbone of our state’s economy since before the American Revolution, and now New York’s farms will be at the center of the most equitable cannabis industry in the nation,” Hochul said. “I’m proud of the work the Office of Cannabis Management and the Cannabis Control Board are doing to get adult-use cannabis sales up and running as fast as possible without compromising our mission to uplift communities and individuals most impacted by the past century of cannabis prohibition.”
Meanwhile, the state is also developing regulations for legal medical home cultivation (so you can grow your own).
There are unsettling issues that have yet to be determined. What about workers who use pot on their own time (or even lunch hour) but come to work impaired – airline pilot, police officer, firefighter, factory worker, surgeon, teacher? Legalizing marijuana will likely invalidate drug testing altogether.
But I really worry about promoting a cannibis culture that means kids will grow up with a literal taste for pot because the smells are all around and weed products become ubiquitous, with an aura of being absolutely harmless, and a social more that promotes pot use like a 6 p.m. cocktail.
Then will we be seeing a new sort of Stop Smoking campaign and a whole new public safety apparatus?