New York Health Department Recommends Marijuana Legalization, Days Benefits Outweigh Risks

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The New York State Health Department is high on the prospects of legal marijuana.

In a long-awaited report released Friday, the Health Department concluded the “positive effects of a regulated marijuana market in NYS outweigh the potential negative impacts” and recommended that state officials move forward with the legalization of recreational pot use.

Such a move, however, should only happen after the development of a “well-thought-out” regulatory structure and public education campaign to inform the public about the benefits and risks associated with pot use, the report said.

“It is imperative that a regulated marijuana program contain all necessary safeguards and measures to limit access for individuals under 21, minimize impaired driving, provide education and tailored messaging to different populations, and connect people to treatment if needed,” the report stated.

The report, which was ordered by Gov. Cuomo in January, found that a regulated marijuana market could have several benefits for New York, including increased quality controls, consumer protections and tax revenues.

With New York’s current market for illegal marijuana estimated to tally between $1.74 billion and $3.5 billion annually, the report estimated that the state could see tax revenue of between $248 million and $677.7 million, assuming tax rates of between 7% and 15%. The report recommended an initial tax rate of between 7% and 10%.

The report also stressed that legalization of marijuana could have significant criminal justice impacts, noting that a large percentage of those arrested for marijuana-related offenses are minorities. It recommends that “NYS expunge the criminal records of individuals with marijuana-related offenses.”

Health officials also concluded that there’s little evidence that legalization would lead to increased marijuana use and said it also has the potential to reduce use of opioids.

Advocates for legalized marijuana hailed the report and urged state officials to follow through on its recommendations.

“We are pleased that the Governor and the State Department of Health have fully studied the existing evidence and accurately concluded that legalizing marijuana for adult use is the right choice for New York,” said Chris Alexander, policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. “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.”

Gov. Cuomo said now it's time to focus on who can sell pot.
Gov. Cuomo said now it’s time to focus on who can sell pot. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

 

Cuomo on Friday said he would “put together a group” to come up with a “full program” for legalization. He noted that the report recommends that people be at least 21 to purchase pot, but doesn’t answer such questions such as who could sell it, where, and the quantity that can be sold.

“That to me is the devil in the details,” he said.

Cuomo had previously opposed legalization of marijuana but ordered the Health Department to study the issue because of the steps nearby states, including Massachusetts and New Jersey, were taking steps to legalize the drug.

“Those are our two border states,” he said Friday. “You have more control and there’s a possibility for revenue when you regulate it and in this context, where you have New Jersey and Massachusetts legalizing it, it’s not really an option of preventing it because you can go over a bridge and over a border.”

Marijuana legalization has also become a campaign issue, with actress Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging Cuomo for the Democratic nomination for governor, and other left-leaning candidates making it a central issue of their campaigns.

In a statement, Nixon campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt accused the Cuomo administration of releasing the report as a ploy to distract attention away from this week’s conviction of top economic development aide Alain Kaloyeros on corruption charges.

“For eight years, Governor Cuomo oversaw the criminalization of communities of color with drug policy chief among the tools used to do so. Today, his administration endorses marijuana legalization not because it is the right thing to do, but to distract from the conviction of his top economic aide,” Hitt said. “The timing of the announcement really makes you wonder if Cuomo is hoping New Yorkers get too stoned to remember that the architect of his signature economic program is going to be joining his other top aide Joe Percoco in prison.”

A rep for Cuomo denied he released the report to distract attention away from Kaloyeros’ conviction, or that he changed his stance because of Nixon.

“Only an actress could be this self-obsessed,” Cuomo campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said in a statement. “Months before Cynthia decided play the role of gubernatorial candidate, Gov. Cuomo ordered this study to thoughtfully consider the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana. Auctioning off bongs would make for a cute ‘Sex and the City’ plot line, but being governor requires making decisions that affect the lives of 20 million people.”

Nixon’s campaign website recently offered supporters the chance to win a glass bong signed by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer of Comedy Central’s “Broad City.”

Despite the report’s findings, it is unlikely lawmakers will take any steps until at least next year since the Legislature has already adjourned for the year.

The state Senate’s ruling GOP conference has also expressed opposition to legalizing pot.

“Our Senate Majority is focused on making New York more affordable for hardworking taxpayers, helping businesses create new jobs for the middle class, and keeping families and communities safe,” Senate GOP spokesman Scott Reif said in May. “Let others focus on legalizing drugs and what that would look like. Affordability, opportunity, security — those are our priorities for the remainder of the year.”

Reif did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.

“The process to legalize and properly regulate marijuana should be seriously reviewed and advanced,” Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester) said in a statement. “More and more New Yorkers understand the harm that has been done by criminalizing marijuana, arresting and giving records to millions of our youth, and allowing shadow markets to flourish. We need to start to undo the damage from this misguided policy, and that means advancing common sense legalization efforts.”

A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said only that he would review the report.

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