With the release of an official Department of Health report recommending the legalization of marijuana last month, discussion in New York state now should turn to the details.
One of them is revenue. The report gave a wide range between $248 and $678 million depending on the tax rate. Another concerns public safety, the best way to use techniques we now apply to the use of alcohol by those under the legal age and by those who operate motor vehicles.
But we will not get around to having a public discussion of those details until the end of this election cycle because the Republican Party in New York still thinks that Nancy Reagan was right when she advised, “Just say no.” The latest poll on the issue from Quinnipiac University showed that 56 percent of the Republicans in the state were opposed to legalization in contrast to 63 percent overall who favored it including 71 percent of Democrats.
Still, Republican candidates are leaving themselves some wiggle room to avoid turning off all those who believe that the time for legal marijuana has come. Marc Molinaro, the Republican candidate for governor, makes the compelling case that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent evolution toward legalization, a dramatic change from just a year ago when he called pot a “gateway drug,” is more about politics than policy. The way he sees it, the governor made a political decision to move toward legalization and the official report was produced in support.
He has a point about politics driving most Cuomo decisions but it is hard to take his criticism seriously since he has been a politician all of his adult life, starting with election to the Tivoli Board of Trustees when he was 18.
Voters also need to remember that it was New York Republicans who were crucial in moving the state toward legalizing the use of marijuana by allowing it to be prescribed for medicinal purposes, abandoning their unilateral and firm opposition and joining with Democrats in both the Senate and Assembly.
In that sense, it was the GOP in New York which opened the gate, then kept it open by adding more maladies to the approved list and presiding over the expansion of state-sanctioned firms involved in growing marijuana, packaging it in approved ways and then distributing it under the official sanction of a prescription.
At a time when the nation struggles with issue of race, inequitable enforcement of laws against marijuana provide a stark lesson. As an analysis of arrests in New York City showed this spring, over the past three years blacks were eight times more likely to face low-level charges than white, non-Hispanics. In Manhattan, they were 15 times more likely to face charges.
With municipalities reducing the penalties for possession of marijuana to the equivalent of a parking ticket, with states surrounding us already having legalized recreational use, it is hard to see how New York can continue with a policy that in many ways creates more dangers than legalization would.
Keep things as they are and people will be coming back from their Cape Cod vacations with more than sunburns.