Long a bastion of social progress and cultural experimentation, New York State — home to New York City and the birthplace of High Times — lags painfully behind when it comes to legalized weed. The winds of change are undoubtedly blowing in the right direction. The governor recently commissioned a study by the State Health Department, which endorsed full legalization when it reported its findings. Although that’s a seismic shift in the right direction, the Empire State still faces a maze of obstacles, challenges, and opposition as it slogs toward legalizing marijuana and reclaiming its status as a progressive blue state committed to social justice and common sense.
The Governor is a Wishy-Washy Opportunist
When it comes to legalization, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo will have the final say in whether or not the Empire State finally catches up to the entire West Coast, Colorado, Alaska and its neighbors in the Northeast. The problem is, Gov. Mixed Signals has long been an opponent of legalization. The man who recently pretended that he suffered politically for boldly taking the just but unpopular move to codify marriage equality (he actually didn’t budge until gay marriage was widely popular and politically expedient) is apparently now experiencing a similar awakening on legalized weed — conveniently just as the bulk of the electorate is clamoring for it.
According to the New York Times, Cuomo recently stated that when it comes to pot, “facts have changed.” No, governor, the facts have not changed — and Cuomo’s position has not changed with nearly enough expediency or authenticity. As recently as 2017, the Democratic governor called weed a “gateway drug.”
New York City’s Mayor Wants it Both Ways
It’s true that New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio is just a lowly city official and not a state lawmaker. His city, however, happens to be the largest and one of the most important in America, and the beating heart of New York State — the mayor of the Five Boroughs wields heavy clout in Albany. Like fellow Democrat Gov. Cuomo, Mayor De Blasio’s positions and rhetoric are inconsistent and full of mixed messages. He took steps to reduce the number of low-level pot arrests in the city and — at least in his speeches — prioritized racial disparity as it pertains to pot enforcement.
He is now and has always been, however, a vocal opponent of full legalization. Out of step with the City Council and the majority of his constituents, De Blasio’s half-measures with law enforcement and progressive talk on the issue of racial targeting can’t be reconciled with the fact that, at the end of the day, he believes it should be illegal for law-abiding, tax-paying adults to smoke pot.
The State’s Medical Marijuana Law is a Smoldering Dumpster Fire
When it “legalized” marijuana for medical purposes in 2014, New York became the 23rd state to decriminalize medical use. That’s right, nearly half the country beat the home of Woodstock to the punch — and the authors of the law put on a clinic of how to write terrible, self-defeating legislation. The 2014 Compassionate Care Act was anything but what its name implies. One of the country’s most restrictive medical marijuana laws, the act was so narrow, so complicated, and excluded so many New Yorkers that opponents believed it was intentionally designed to fail.
To be fair, the law has evolved over time to include more ailments and loosen its original draconian restrictions. But its legacy is a labyrinth of state statutes would have to be amended in order for full legalization to proceed. Among the areas of Compassionate Care Act-related damage that would need to be undone include business, finance and human rights law, tax law, Alcoholic Beverages Control Law, penal law, vehicle traffic law, and public health law.
Locking Up Tokers is Big Business
Proponents of common-sense legalization often cite the prospect of hefty tax windfalls and full government coffers. The problem is, by altering the status quo the state would be trading a potential source of income for one that’s guaranteed. Since Mayor De Blasio instructed the NYPD to issue $100 tickets for most low-level possessions, arrests have dropped, but tickets and summonses — and the revenue they generate — skyrocketed by a whopping 58 percent. And that’s just in New York City.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the state has spent the last 20 years earning the title of the “marijuana arrest capital of the world.” Among the 800,000 pot arrests recorded in New York during that time, 23,000 were in 2016 alone. That’s an increase of 2,300 percent from 1990. For law enforcement, pot truly is a gateway drug — the gateway to inappropriate searches, seizures, and arrests. The process of arrest involves being handcuffed, booked, photographed, fingerprinted, arraigned, and forced to return to court — for multiple appearances, in many cases. Virtually every single one of these incidents concludes with the victim cutting a check to the state for their troubles.
Sheriff Barry Virts, the Human Embodiment of Drug War ‘Logic’
Barry Virts is the sheriff of Wayne County and president of the New York State Sheriff’s Association. He’s also a dyed-in-the-wool drug warrior who believes there are just a few degrees of separation between marijuana and all of society’s ills. In January 2018, he testified before the Assembly Health Committee, which, despite Virt’s best efforts to the contrary, recommended legalizing weed for recreational use.
Virt testified that the present is “an inappropriate time to consider any type of decriminalization of marijuana in New York State.” He went on to say that most of his department’s arrests are drug related and cited the country’s ongoing struggle with opioids, which are addictive, dangerous and deadly poisons that doctors are legally allowed to dole out like Advil while men like Virt make a living locking up otherwise law-abiding citizens for smoking pot. Without submitting any evidence to back up his claims, Virt tied marijuana use to opioid addiction, fretted about a hypothetical epidemic of pot-related DUIs, and worried that acceptance of pot could lead to hard drug use, “especially for our youth.”
Conservative Orthodoxy and Republican Power
In New York, Democrats, who are generally receptive to legalization, control the Assembly. Republicans, however, control the Senate, albeit by a fragile margin. Legalization is not high on the list of priorities for Republicans, particularly among the more conservative figures who hammer out the party’s platforms — even when they’re not members of the party.
The New York State Conservative Party wields considerable influence over state Republicans, and the group is chaired by an old man with old ideas named Michael Long. Long’s position on pot reflects the no-nonsense (or common sense) law-and-order orthodoxy espoused by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and harkens back to “Reefer Madness”-era paranoia. Like Sheriff Virt, Long claims to be driven by a not-at-all-disingenuous desire to protect the kids. A local news station, Pix11, reported that Long believes “… legalization is the wrong signal for our young people.” In the end, Long stated that, “We as a party will do everything in our power to oppose the legislation.”