After college, while I was still struggling with the early days of my career as a writer, I considered becoming a lawyer. I practiced for the LSAT and scoped out law schools with dreams of becoming a powerhouse civil rights attorney. Then I met a few people who had actually been to law school. Every single one of them discouraged me from the path, promising it would bring me nothing but debt and shattered dreams. They told me that law school would wring the noble intentions right out of me and that I’d end up a corporate shill working 80 hours a week. I caved in the face of their foreboding warnings and eventually abandoned the idea. I didn’t have the fortune of meeting lawyers who follow their ideals until I started reporting on cannabis.
This realm fosters a unique breed of lawyer. By and large, they are high functioning potheads, like so many in the industry, but their brand of enthusiasm for the plant adds a legitimacy to the movement. Within the scope of the pro-legalization mindset, few are more aware of our enraging prohibition policies than lawyers. Thankfully, many of them have channeled their discontentment into activism on a new level — challenging lawmakers on their own playing field.
Adam Scavone is a New York attorney who has taken up this fight, and it looks like he’s going to keep winning. In this week’s Weed People, Adam weighs in on the legalization landscape.
Describe your involvement with cannabis in all aspects, personal, professional, etc.
Cannabis is and has been a major part of my life since I was a high school senior in upstate New York in the late ’90s. Back then, it was purely personal. I am about as far out of the cannabis closet as anyone can be, and have been for a long time. I love cannabis, and I’ve always been offended by the idea that me, my friends, and Weed People generally could be treated like criminals. I always thought it was incredibly arrogant and condescending on the part of the people who enact, preserve, and enforce the laws. That ultimately led me to co-found the New York Cannabis Alliance in 2010, which has been leading the fight for reform in New York ever since. More recently, I launched my own law practice, and I’m now honored to be working with a variety of businesses in the cannabis space.
How is state-level legalization affecting your cannabis-related activities?
Other states legalizing is making life much easier here in New York. When recreational stores opened in Colorado on January 1st of this year, it opened the eyes of a lot of people who hold power in New York. Now, they know it’s not a matter of “if” but rather it’s a matter of “when” New York will overhaul our cannabis laws. It’s also made it very real at the grassroots level, and we’ve been able to harness that enthusiasm through the New York Cannabis Alliance and direct it into meaningful change, including getting New York’s legalization bill into headlines and in front of legislators’ eyes, so that we can really open up this discussion.
What are some of the victories of state-level legalization in your area?
Senator Liz Krueger’s introduction of a bill to legalize cannabis, and to enact a reasonable regulatory framework for cultivation and retail sales, has been a huge victory for New York. She has Buffalo Assembly member Crystal Peoples-Stokes on board as a sponsor, and we’re building upstate/downstate ties. The opening of this issue as a political debate was made possible by Colorado and Washington, and we’re seeing smaller wins as well. I suspect that Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson’s decision to end most cannabis prosecutions in the borough was related to those votes. We’re also watching opposition start to collapse within the New York State GOP and Conservative parties, which is no doubt related, at least to some extent.
What are some of the failures of state-level legalization in your area?
New York’s Compassionate Care Act leaves a lot to be desired, and Governor Cuomo’s opaque handling of implementation is grounds for ongoing suspicion. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Cuomo wants medical cannabis in theory, but not in stores, and not in patients’ hands. He’s taking pages right out of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s playbook, doing seemingly reasonable things that, upon further inspection, are really just stalling tactics. Christie did it by proposing that Rutgers grow all of New Jersey’s medical cannabis, knowing that it could never happen, and now Cuomo is doing things like asking the Department of Justice for permission to import cannabis on an emergency basis from Canada. It’s a transparently hypocritical move from the very man who ensured that New York’s medical marijuana program would not be up and running for a minimum of eighteen months, and who ensured that language was included in the bill that made it possible for the program to never become a reality, and included a “kill switch” in case it ever does.
What is the biggest challenge facing legalization on a state level?
Seniors, the “treatment” industry, and big pharma and alcohol. We have some great seniors on our side, but not enough, and not a big enough percentage of the senior vote. Enough of them oppose us that they become a stumbling block. The “treatment” industry gets the majority of its “referrals” for cannabis from the criminal justice system — people who were “caught” with cannabis, most of whom have nothing wrong with them and who are not in need of “treatment” because they don’t have any cannabis-related problems. Big pharma and alcohol are fighting to keep market share, fighting the inevitable for as long as they can, and funding groups like Project SAM to battle us.
Do you believe the federal government is making progress towards decriminalization or legalization?
New York repealed its alcohol prohibition law in 1923, ten years before the fall of nationwide Prohibition. Other states followed suit, but very slowly. In 1930, Senator Morris Sheppard, one of the authors of the Prohibition amendment, said, “There’s as much chance of repealing the 18th Amendment as there is for a humming bird to fly to Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.” Three years later, the Repeal amendment was ratified, and alcohol prohibition was dead as a matter of federal law.
I think we’re seeing history repeat itself, with Oregon and Alaska following Colorado and Washington, and plenty more on the way in 2016. The federal government will not lead on the issue, but the progress being made by the states is forcing a discussion, and I think we’ll see relatively sudden and drastic changes in the next five years.
How long, do you predict, before weed is completely legal in America?
We still have “dry counties” scattered around the country, and I have no idea where states like Georgia, Mississippi, or Alabama are going to come out on this, but I think we’ll win for the most part no later than 2020.
How long, do you predict, before weed is completely legal in the world?
I have no idea, but the more we make International Narcotics Control Board chair Raymond Yans cry into his Cheerios, the better.
Colorado and Washington set the stage. Uruguay followed, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina has called for reconsideration of the global drug treaties, and the Global Commission headed by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan have all contributed massively.
On the other hand, India just recently decided to reconsider the death penalty for a second-offense cannabis smuggler, and Indonesia, China, and other countries routinely murder people for smuggling cannabis, often on the U.N.’s “World Drug Day.” It’s crazy out there. Luckily, there are some great organizations focused on the international stage and the upcoming United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 2016.
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