ALBANY — Proposals to permit recreational marijuana use in New York state took a big step forward Friday when state health officials issued a long-awaited report concluding that the benefits of legalization outweigh the risks.
The 74-page analysis from the Department of Health estimates the state could raise nearly $700 million in tax revenue off the drug. The researchers predict that allowing those age 21 and older to use marijuana recreationally would not significantly raise rates of marijuana use by adults or teens, and note that legalization would eliminate criminal penalties that disproportionately impact minorities.
Still, the report laid out several challenges to legalization, including the need to carefully regulate the sale of the drug and educate teens about potential harm.
Residents and visitors now spend between $1.7 billion and $3.5 billion on illegal marijuana each year in New York state, according to estimates. Depending on the tax rate chosen by lawmakers, the state could hope to generate between $250 million and $678 million in revenue.
New York state "would be one of the largest potential regulated marijuana markets in the United States," the report found. "As such, there is potential for substantial tax revenue ... which can be used to help support program initiatives in areas such as public health, education, transportation, research, law enforcement and workforce development."
It will now be up to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers to propose specific legalization proposals.
Cuomo, who commissioned the report, has long expressed concerns about legalization, last year calling marijuana a "gateway drug." But he has since softened his stance amid pressure from legalization supporters, including his Democratic primary opponent, "Sex and the City" star Cynthia Nixon.
For years, bills that would legalize marijuana have languished on the legislative agenda as states including Colorado, California and — closer to home — Massachusetts and Vermont have moved to legalize America's most widely used illicit drug.
While many Democrats in the Legislature are supportive of legalization, the Senate's Republican leaders are more skeptical. A spokesman for GOP Senate Leader John Flanagan said last month that Republicans are concentrating on other issues.
"Our Senate Majority is focused on making New York more affordable for hardworking taxpayers, helping businesses create new and good-paying jobs, and keeping families and communities safe," said spokesman Scott Reif. "Let the governor and others focus on legalizing drugs."
Even if a proposal gains broad support in Albany, figuring out the details will be tricky. How high will the tax be? How would retail establishments be regulated? Would the state allow marijuana to be consumed on site? Could local communities pass their own laws prohibiting marijuana businesses? And how will law enforcement determine whether a motorist is impaired? Will the state expunge the criminal records of those arrested for using the drug?
Still, longtime supporters of legalization say the report is a significant step forward after decades of criminal prohibition.
"Marijuana prohibition has devastated our communities, saddled hundreds of thousands with criminal records, acted as an easily accessible tool for racially biased policing, and stunted the opportunities for entire generations of mostly New Yorker's of color," said Chris Alexander of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Now that the report has been released and its conclusions presented, we are hopeful that the governor and the Legislature can shift from the 'if' to examining the 'how' to legalize marijuana."
Nearly 23,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in New York state in 2016. Studies routinely show that blacks and Latinos are arrested far more often than whites, even though rates of marijuana use are about the same across different groups.