We think of marijuana as a drug that was, until recently, illegal in every state and deserving of the stigma attached to its use by mainstream society.
So it was eye-opening to read this sentence in the Department of Health report issued in July on the subject of marijuana legalization in New York:
“From the late 1800s until the 1930s, marijuana was generally considered a benign, medically efficacious substance that was sold in pharmacies and doctors’ offices throughout the United States to treat various ailments.”
You have to wonder how and why marijuana acquired its more recent “evil weed” reputation. But the country has gone back and forth in its attitude toward various drugs. Cocaine used to be sold in patent medicines (and at first, in very small amounts, in Coca-Cola), and we have alternately embraced and rejected alcohol.
Now, it seems, the country is returning to its earlier view of marijuana. Twenty-nine states, including New York, allow its medical use and nine have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who had been hesitant about moving forward on full legalization, recently came out in favor of it.
We acknowledge the popularity of marijuana and the likelihood it will eventually become legal in New York for recreational use. But we see no need to rush into legalization and believe the state would be well served in proceeding carefully and deliberately.
The Health Department report makes a strong case that the benefits of legalization outweigh the drawbacks, but it acknowledges that drawbacks exist.
Although evidence is growing, both from research and from patient reports, that marijuana can be medically helpful, we believe more work needs to be done to identify the ailments for which it offers the most help, the best ways to take the drug and the correct dosages.
Even if medical legalization is just a way station on the track to full legalization, it’s a stop that should be given some time. Medical use of the drug, especially as it becomes more widespread, will give New Yorkers a chance to gauge its effects, good and bad.
We don’t see any reason to rush. The notion of making money from pot sales, whether it’s private profit or state tax revenue, has been oversold. Other states, including Vermont and Massachusetts, have gotten there first, and New York is not going to experience an economic boom from marijuana any more than it has from casino gambling.
Over time, the state should benefit from decriminalizing the drug, because every arrest and prosecution is expensive, especially if they result in jail time. Although possession of small amounts is now a noncriminal offense, punishable by a maximum fine of $100, possession in public is still a misdemeanor.
Over the past 20 years, New York has arrested more than 800,000 people for marijuana possession and these “minor marijuana arrests,” according to the Health Department report, have had a “disproportionate impact” on “low-income communities of color.”
Although marijuana is used in equal proportion by people of different classes and races, there has long been, in practice, one criminal justice standard for well-off white people and another, much harsher one for poor black and brown people.
Gov. Cuomo proposed in 2012 that possession of small amounts, whether in public or private, be treated as a violation, but the Legislature did not go along. That is a measure that could and should be adopted immediately. The report also recommends that, as the drug is decriminalized, steps should be taken to clear the criminal records of people convicted in the past of minor marijuana charges, to remove obstacles they face in finding jobs and housing.
It’s important to acknowledge that marijuana is a drug, that it is not benign and that any recreational use should be restricted to adults. Police officers need to be trained to recognize when drivers are impaired by marijuana.
Legalization would bring state control to the marijuana market, which would improve the safety and quality of the product. It would also strike a blow against the violent Mexican cartels that now dominate the marijuana black market and provide most of the supply to the U.S.
If pot is being grown, for example, in Washington County and sold in state-licensed shops, then money will no longer be flowing to the criminal gangs that have waged war along the country’s southern border.
Local cultivation and sale may be the future of marijuana in New York. But legalizing a drug for recreational use is a significant step and will change our culture in unanticipated ways.
We should take care. Medical use is one thing, decriminalization another. But accepting marijuana on the same terms as alcohol, allowing its purchase in public shops and unrestricted use by adults, is a profound change that shouldn’t be made lightly or quickly.