Public Opinion, Wasted Tax Dollars and Racially Discriminatory Arrests Push Legislators to Fix Broken Marijuana Policies
Colorado, Washington, and Now Uruguay Offer Sensible Models and Precedent for Reform
New York -- Today, New York State Senator Liz Krueger introduced a bill to tax and regulate marijuana for adult use. The bill would end the criminalization of adults 18 years and older who possess up to two ounces of marijuana and would create a regulatory system allowing for the retail sale of marijuana to those over the age of 21, much like the current system for regulating alcohol. Recent polls show a majority of Americans now support taxing and regulating marijuana.
New York’s current marijuana policies are widely recognized as broken. Approximately 600,000 people, mostly young Black and Latino men, have been arrested for marijuana possession in NY since 1997, saddling them with criminal records that impede their ability to obtain jobs, student loans, and housing.
“Prohibition of marijuana is a policy that just hasn’t worked, no matter how you look at it, and it’s time to have an honest conversation about what we should do next,” said Sen. Krueger. “The illegal marijuana economy is alive and well, and our unjust laws are branding nonviolent New Yorkers, especially young adults, as criminals, creating a vicious cycle that ruins lives and needlessly wastes taxpayer dollars. Worst of all, this system has resulted in a civil rights disaster: African Americans are dramatically more likely to be arrested for pot possession than whites, despite similar rates of marijuana use among both groups.”
In New York City, marijuana possession is the number one arrest, and NY makes more marijuana arrests than every other state in the country, including California, Florida and Texas. Nearly 97% of all marijuana offenses in New York were for mere possession. The vast majority of those arrested (85%) are Black and Latino, mostly young men, even though numerous government studies report that young white men use marijuana at higher rates.
“As a neuropsychopharmacologist who has spent the past fifteen years studying the neurophysiological, psychological and behavioral effects of marijuana, I can tell you that the claims about the harms associated with marijuana use have been greatly exaggerated in the media,” said Dr. Carl Hart, associate professor of psychology at Columbia University. “Far greater harm results from arresting people for marijuana possession and the racial disparities of those arrests.”
Recent estimates show that New York state spends approximately $675 million a year enforcing marijuana possession laws. Fixing New York’s marijuana laws would save hundreds of millions every year, which could be reinvested into the community increasing the quality of life for all New Yorkers. By enacting a regulatory framework, the state could capture tax revenue that is currently largely under the control of criminal enterprises.
"Being arrested for marijuana possession isn't a mere inconvenience. It can have long-lasting consequences for employment, housing, child custody and other areas of a person's life," said Alfredo Carrasquillo, VOCAL's Civil Rights Organizer. “These arrests have led to hundreds of millions of dollars in policing and court costs and incalculable damage to the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, mostly Black and Latino youth. We need real reform, now."
A number of reform proposals related to marijuana policy reform are under consideration in Albany. A proposal to make medical marijuana available to seriously ill patients under a tightly regulated system, known as the Compassionate Care Act is now gaining momentum in the Legislature. And last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo led an effort, strongly supported by law enforcement, to standardize some marijuana possession laws, making possession of marijuana in public view a violation, rather than misdemeanor. That effort stalled in the Senate.
“My 26 years in law enforcement, including 14 in narcotics, taught me that prohibition is the true cause of much of the personal and communal damage that has historically been attributed to drug use,” commented Jack Cole, a retired Detective Lieutenant with New Jersey State Police and co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “In a regulated and controlled environment, marijuana will be safer for adult use and less accessible to young people, we can curtail the crime associated with the illicit market, and law enforcement can focus its resources on more serious crimes,” he said.
Studies show that criminalizing and arresting people for marijuana possession does little to prevent the use of marijuana. In national surveys, young people consistently report that it's easier to buy marijuana than alcohol, and under our current punitive system of prohibition, 20.5% of New York high school students report using marijuana in the past 30 days versus the 12.5% who have used cigarettes, which are carefully regulated. Many experts see the taxation and regulation of marijuana as a more effective way of controlling teen use than our current failed approaches.
“New Yorkers are fed up with our current failed system,” said Howard Josepher, the founder and President of Exponents, a leading drug treatment program in NYC. “We need a meaningful discussion about real alternatives to what we are currently doing. Marijuana prohibition doesn’t prevent use; it just makes criminals out of young people of color and the seriously ill who use marijuana to treat conditions like cancer, multiple sclerosis, and HIV/AIDS.”
A national shift on drug policies is underway. Earlier this year, Attorney General Holder noted that the war on drugs has resulted in “the decimation of certain communities, in particular of communities of color.” The Obama administration also gave states the green light to implement reforms to marijuana policies without fear of federal interference. Twenty states now permit the use of medical marijuana; fourteen states, including New York have some kind of decriminalization law on the books; and voters in two states – Colorado and Washington – recently voted to end prohibition by taxing and regulating marijuana for recreational use for adults over the age of 21. By creating a regulatory regime, Colorado and Washington are bringing under the rule of law the production, sale and use of marijuana. Senator Krueger’s bill seeks to do the same.
“Fixing New York’s marijuana laws will provide compassion and relieve suffering, end unnecessary arrests, reduce racial disparities, and free up law enforcement time and resources,” gabriel sayegh, State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “But we need to do more to address the legacy of racial bias associated with current marijuana laws, including erasing marijuana arrests from the criminal records of over 600,000 New Yorkers arrested for marijuana possession in the past 15 years, and ensuring these same communities can meaningfully participate in, and benefit from, any legal marijuana-related industry.”
“We’ve tried marijuana prohibition for decades, and it’s clearly failed. It hasn’t reduce use and instead has resulted in the criminalization of thousands, gross racial disparities, and enormous fiscal waste,” said Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “We need to rethink how we can enhance the health and safety of all New Yorkers through sensible reforms. Tackling these issues will require a vigorous, informed debate, and Senator Krueger’s bill offers a good starting place for these discussions.”