New York just lost a major excuse for legalizing weed

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With the passage of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, New York is slated to receive a whopping $100 billion. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office praised this portion of the bill, as it wholly eliminates the massive budget deficit Albany faced.

Thanks to federal tax dollars, lawmakers in Albany no longer need to consider tax increases and spending cuts — and those pushing for marijuana legalization just lost a major excuse for expanding Big Pot into New York.

For months, we have heard incessantly from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and others that the upcoming state budget must include a provision to legalize — and tax — pot to shore up the budget, as well as to right the wrongs of prohibition by establishing an “equitable” industry and regulate the use of the drug, to eliminate the illicit market and keep it away from young people.

Alas, these points don’t match up with reality in the states that have already gone down this road. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a single state that has accomplished any semblance of an “equitable” pot industry.

In California, for example, the leaders of the campaign to legalize weed recently acknowledged, “We all know social equity has been a failure, here in LA and across most jurisdictions” in terms of rules for pot. According to the data, blacks have historically felt the brunt of the harm from the War on Drugs, but according to an analysis of the first 100 approved retail licenses in Los Angeles, only 11 black people were approved for licenses.

In Illinois, where lawmakers promised to “set the standard” when it came to an equitable marijuana industry, the result was the opposite: To date, not a single marijuana storefront in Illinois is black-owned. (Notably, after passing their legalization bill, Illinois lawmakers flew to Albany to help work on our pot bill — not an encouraging sign.)

Nor does legalization keep pot away from youth. Since 2017, the rate of Colorado high schoolers vaping marijuana has risen 70 percent, while the use of marijuana “dabs” is up 49 percent. Even more concerning: Among high schoolers there who’ve used weed in the last 30 days, the use of high-potency concentrates rose an astounding 156 percent.

Past-month marijuana use among kids 15 and younger in Colorado has increased 14.8 percent over the last few years.

And legalization has emboldened drug cartels and the illicit market. In California and Colorado, criminal syndicates are buying up houses in subdivisions and using human trafficking to set up and staff elaborate “grow ops.” Gov. Gavin Newsom had to send the state’s national guard to combat massive illegal grows on public lands. He’s also had to spend millions on public-awareness campaigns urging Californians to buy pot from licensed stores instead of illicit-market dealers.

In addition to all the other negative consequences, these operations — which are rapidly spreading in states where pot is legal — also present dangers to local wildlife and other natural resources.

With pro-pot forces failing to pass a commercialization bill in Albany in past years using the social-equity and regulation arguments (and the fact that these arguments fall apart under just the bare minimum of scrutiny), the main argument this year has focused on potential revenue, given what was, until the Biden rescue plan passed, a huge state budget hole.

In reality, government proceeds from marijuana commercialization rarely meet projections and barely account for much more than 1 percent of state budgets. Budget Director Robert Mujica and the Senate sponsor of the legalization bill, Liz Krueger, both acknowledged that expected new cash would be relatively small and take several years to materialize.

Furthermore, any discussion of marijuana revenue has to take into account the increased costs that come with it in the form of increased impaired driving, mental-health issues and hospitalizations, to name a few. Those costs could well offset, if not exceed, the revenues.

With our budget shortfall gone, and no coherent argument left for commercializing weed in New York, maybe instead we could focus on righting our ship from the fallout from the pandemic. Meanwhile, Albany should once again kick Big Pot to the curb. 

Kevin Sabet, Ph.D, a former Obama senior drug-policy adviser, is president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. His book “Smokescreen: What the Marijuana Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know” is due out April 20.

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