Equal Justice Issue in Legalization of Marijuana

The State of New York is barreling fast toward the anticipated legalization of the sale and possession of marijuana as a way to increase tax receipts and reduce the impact of arrests for possession and sale, which fall disproportionately on people of color and the poor. Whether legalization would be statewide is an open question; the draft under consideration in Albany would allow cities and counties to retain current prohibitions. 

The Suffolk Legislature is considering its own “opt-out” bill, sponsored by Legislator Rob Trotta of Fort Salonga, a retired county police detective. Mr. Trotta’s view is that marijuana can lead to the use of more dangerous addictive drugs. This was echoed by several speakers at a Feb. 25 hearing in Hauppauge. The link between pot and opioid addiction, however, is not clear-cut.

Numerous studies have shown that, contrary to Mr. Trotta’s opinion, marijuana legalization is associated with lower rates of opioid use.

In the Journal of General Internal Medicine recently an analysis of an insurance database of more than 4.8 million medical marijuana users showed the rate of prescriptions for high-risk opioids, as well as the chronic use of all opioids, was “modestly lower.” According to another study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, prescriptions for all opioids decreased by 3.7 million doses a day after medical marijuana dispensaries opened in the United States. Other studies have demonstrated a reduction in the use of other pain medicines, as well as in alcohol and tobacco consumption. Certainly there is room for more research, but the overwhelming evidence is that marijuana is less of a gateway drug than some fear.

Mr. Trotta’s stance against legalized marijuana is likely to have more to do with his bid for the Republican Suffolk executive nomination than anything else. He announced his candidacy last month and would need to get past County Comptroller John Kennedy, the other major G.O.P. hopeful according to Newsday, to appear on the ballot in November. Whipping up fears about drug-crazed abusers could play well among those voters Mr. Trotta would need to succeed. 

Make no mistake, there is a disturbing subtext to Mr. Trotta’s bill, namely the disproportionate number of marijuana arrests of people of color, who are significantly more often to be in trouble with the law for possession than whites. Start Smart NY, a group in favor of legalization, presented a report this week indicating that blacks and Latinos accounted for between 60 and 66 percent of marijuana possession arrests in Nassau and Suffolk Counties while being only about 30 percent of the population. Within the white population, the reverse is true: In Suffolk, whites are 69 percent of the population but accounted for just 32 percent of marijuana arrests. The arrest rate for whites was slightly more equitable in Nassau County, but only by about 8 percent, which is still a massive imbalance.

As objectionable a strategy as Mr. Trotta’s approach might be, it could be smart politics for him and other county Republicans. In 2016, Donald Trump won Suffolk by a healthy margin over Hillary Clinton in a presidential campaign in which the eventual winner’s opening shots were at people of color, and he has continued to fan racial divisions in the two years since taking office. A key portion of the state measure would allow low-level marijuana arrest and conviction records to be sealed, an issue that now can make it difficult for some New Yorkers to find or retain jobs. 

We hope the Legislature votes down Mr. Trotta’s bill. Access to marijuana will continue to be easy whether or not it is legalized in Suffolk. But if it is not made legal the unfair effect of its prohibition on people of color will certainly continue.