New York Likely to Legalize Recreational Marijuana Use

Advantages of new taxed industry are mired in a quagmire of questions about pot’s lasting effects

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo surprised many last month when he declared that New York State should legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana “once and for all.” 

The governor’s call followed the July 2018 issuance of a report from the State Department of Health concluding that the advantages of a regulated and taxed cannabis industry outweighed the potential downsides. In advocating for legalization of recreational use, the governor, like other supporters, cited criminal convictions for possession and the lasting impacts of imprisonment and a criminal record, both disproportionately affecting minorities; the fact that New Jersey was moving toward legalization, and that recreational sales in another neighboring state, Massachusetts, have already begun.

The 2018 challenge by the actress Cynthia Nixon, whose advocacy for legalization was prominent in her unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor, may have also influenced Mr. Cuomo’s evolution on the subject. Just a year ago, the governor had referred to marijuana as a gateway drug. 

A bill is expected to seal convictions for possession of the drug, impose three separate taxes at the cultivation and wholesale stages, and establish an Office of Cannabis Management. Growers would be prohibited from opening retail shops, and counties and municipalities would be able to ban sales, as some have already moved to do. 

Ten states, including another bordering New York, Vermont, have legalized recreational use of marijuana, as has Washington, D.C., and other state governments are debating legalization. Marijuana use for medicinal purposes became legal in New York in 2016, though the law is considered restrictive relative to other states’ laws governing such use. 

With a newly Democratic majority in the State Senate, passage of a bill legalizing recreational use of marijuana by adults 21 and older is far more likely, Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said this month, prior to the governor’s Jan. 15 State of the State address. But the governor’s promise that a regulated industry will eventually generate annual tax revenue of $300 million, he said, should not unduly influence legislators. 

“Clearly, the governor has substantially changed his position,” Mr. Thiele said. “It wasn’t but a few years ago he was extremely resistant to even providing for a program for medical marijuana. In fact, the final legislation reflected that. Some people would say it was so stringent, with the language he put in, it was almost unworkable.”

The revenue benefit derived from regulated and taxed marijuana “is one of my least concerns,” Mr. Thiele said. “I think people in the Legislature have spent that 20 times over already.” In the context of a $176 billion budget, “I’m not saying it’s inconsequential, but it is not going to change the finances of the state in a material way. Every controversial measure that’s ever come up in the Legislature, people try to sell it on revenue — the lottery, casino gaming a few years ago. I’m going to be focused more on the impact on communities and individuals.”

“This is certainly going to be a situation where the details matter,” he said. “From my perspective, of all the things that I think need to be priorities during the 2019 session, this one is down the list pretty far. I think that electoral reform, fixing the voting system, reproductive rights, health care, and education are all more important than this particular issue.” (The State Senate passed legislation addressing election reform last week.) 

State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle is unequivocally opposed to legalization. In a statement issued yesterday, Mr. LaValle, a founding member of the Senate’s task force to address heroin and opioid addiction, said that “We have worked very hard to halt the spread of drug use and provide resources for treatment,” including mandating additional insurance coverage, enabling the administration of Narcan, increasing the number of treatment beds, and improving enforcement tools. “While these efforts have made improvements, I still meet too many people who have lost loved ones to addictions. Many families in my district have been affected by this crisis, and without more conclusive evidence concerning marijuana as a gateway drug, in good conscience, I cannot support its legalization.”

“Do I see any pluses? No,” said Karen Martin, the acting executive director of Alternatives Counseling Services, with offices in Southampton and Riverhead. “Except for now people won’t get arrested and clog the system with low-level things.” Having said that, “This isn’t your marijuana of yesteryear,” Dr. Martin said. “It’s stronger. We’ve gotten so much smarter that we’ve learned how to hybrid these things, so it is so much more potent that it’s scary. . . . Way back when, it may have been a gateway drug. Today, it is absolutely a drug that is addictive. Mind-altering, no question about that. It’s going to lead to more addiction, most likely.”

While legalization of marijuana is slowly but surely taking hold across the country, and a Quinnipiac University Poll last year concluded that New York voters supported the legal possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use 63 to 32 percent, there has been pushback against legalization for recreational use from other quarters. In the Jan. 14 issue of The New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell wrote that “When it comes to cannabis, the best-case scenario is that we will muddle through, learning more about its true effects as we go along and adapting as needed,” likening legalization’s aftermath to the push for safer automobiles. He also referred to “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence,” in which Alex Berenson asserts conclusions self-evident in the title, at least among long-term, heavy users of marijuana. 

But Mr. Gladwell is “over-hyping the issue a bit,” said Harrison Wise, president of Wise Public Relations in Manhattan, which specializes in the cannabis industry. Mr. Wise acknowledged some legitimate concerns about detrimental effects of marijuana use, but added that some of the warnings voiced in anti-legalization statements “are completely off-base,” akin to dramatic but outlandish portrayals in the 1936 film “Reefer Madness,” which became a cult classic in the ensuing decades. 

Mr. Wise sees many upsides to legalization for recreational use, as against few, if any, downsides. “The pros are clear: revenue, revitalization of certain industries, especially in the northern part of the state — farming, hemp farming, indoor farming, extraction, manufacturing. Putting that money to good use is certainly advantageous. But it’s important that we get it right. New York is a very complex state.” 

He agreed with the governor and Mr. Thiele that a deliberate approach to legalization is warranted. “I think it’s smart for Governor Cuomo to take a more calculated approach,” he said. “I think there’s still a lot of learning that should come from the states that have already legalized recreational marijuana. A lot of that is underway. Learning from their mistakes will help us make the right choices in terms of how they roll it out. We are a very large state, there’s a lot at stake here, both from a New York City perspective as well as the larger State of New York.”

Questions to address include how many dispensaries should be permitted and where retail sales would be conducted, he said. “What is the saturation point? How much can you sell to an individual? Do you allow people to grow their own? New York City is very vertical,” and smoking on certain premises, and secondhand smoke, must be considered. “A lot of the primary cons are probably going to be centered on the five boroughs, because of the saturation of our city,” he said. 

Legalization for recreational use would also spur innovation, Mr. Wise predicted. “You’re creating new jobs, opportunities for entrepreneurs to bring types of delivery and ancillary services to consumers, or patients and consumers — let’s not overlook the medicinal aspect of legalization.” 

Mr. Gladwell argued that significant uncertainty of marijuana’s effects persists because its prohibition throughout most of the 20th century meant little research has been done. A 2017 report by a panel convened by the National Academy of Medicine “simply stated, over and over again, that a drug North Americans have become enthusiastic about remains a mystery,” he wrote. 

Dr. Martin at Alternatives said that she is not opposed to research. “Before we say it’s okay and helpful, and before we say it’s a horrible thing, don’t you think research should be ferreted? Do I see more downsides? Absolutely, only because it’s so much stronger. Alcohol isn’t being kept out of kids’ hands; marijuana won’t be kept out of adolescents’ hands now.” 

Mr. Thiele said that personal experience would likely be one of several factors in his own vote on legalization. “I grew up in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” he said. “I can tell you I tried it, and I did inhale. . . . It’s, in some ways, almost been a rite of passage. I’m not saying everybody has tried it, but certainly a lot have.” He does not use marijuana today, he said, nor is past use particularly controversial for those seeking elective office, as it was a few decades ago. 

Regardless of one’s personal experience, a newly Democratic majority in the Senate makes passage of a bill legalizing recreational use of marijuana a strong possibility in the first 100 days of Governor Cuomo’s third term, as he has called for. Seventeen newly elected legislators now serve in the Senate, Mr. Thiele noted. Many of them defeated, in last year’s primary election, a member of the Independent Democratic Conference, which was dissolved last year, or an incumbent Republican in the general election. “Not only is it a Democratic majority, but a decidedly more progressive majority,” he said.