State Assemb. Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn) discusses reasons for changing New York's marijuana laws during a hearing Tuesday in Manhattan on how marijuana could be legalized, regulated and taxed. Credit: Newsday / Matthew Chayes

Make pot legal for adults, the capital city's top prosecutor urged the Assembly on Tuesday — but be careful.

In arguing for legalization, Albany District Attorney David Soares and other proponents at an all-day hearing in Manhattan cited the disproportionate arrest rate of blacks and Hispanics for marijuana despite comparable use among whites; the benefits of reallocating police and prosecutorial resources to more pressing priorities and expunging criminal records of those convicted of behavior that could soon be legal; and the opportunities for a legalized, regulated and taxed marijuana market.

“The war on drugs was a failure,” Soares, one of two dozen witnesses, testified. “As with any war, the end of a drug war presents opportunities — to treat the addicted, to rebuild our communities and to restore confidence in our system of justice.”

But the state should heed lessons from other jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana, Soares told members of four Assembly committees sitting jointly in Manhattan.

In Colorado, which in 2012 became one of the first states to legalize marijuana, Chinese and Cuban gangs have infiltrated the state, exporting the drug to neighboring states where it is still illegal and arbitraging the black-market premium, Soares said.

The hearing into how marijuana could be legalized, regulated and taxed came three months after the state Health Department recommended recreational legalization and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo commissioned a panel to write a legalization bill, which is expected to be considered in the upcoming legislative session.

Cuomo, who in 2002 admitted he “tried marijuana in my youth,” called marijuana “a gateway drug” as recently as February 2017. But the political landscape on legalization has shifted rapidly in the past few years, with more jurisdictions in the country, including New York City, essentially decriminalizing more types of marijuana possession. But despite policy changes by some police agencies and prosecutors, marijuana is still illegal statewide.

In addition to Colorado, marijuana has been legalized in the District of Columbia and eight states, including California, Alaska and Washington. On Wednesday, Canada becomes the first industrialized country to legalize the drug nationwide.

But before New York State considers legalization, the executive and legislative branches are holding parallel hearings around the state. The state Health Department, overseen by the governor, is holding listening sessions for the public on recreational marijuana, including an event in Ronkonkoma that was scheduled for Tuesday.

Soares, at Tuesday’s Assembly hearing, estimated that New York State is between a year and two years from legalization. He said the state also needs to figure out the best way to discourage, combat and detect driving while high.

Soares suggested a "marijuana Marshall plan" to make sure impoverished neighborhoods don't suffer from a black-market vacuum left by legalized marijuana, incentivizing a shift to selling harder drugs.

Dr. David L. Nathan, founder and president of the pro-legalization group Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, said marijuana might be used as an “exit drug” in place of addictive opioids. He said this possibility needs to be studied more.

Nathan, a psychiatrist, said young people counterintuitively are less likely to use marijuana when society is honest, rather than hyperbolic: Young people mistrust the anti-marijuana message upon realizing for themselves that marijuana is less menacing for adults than they’ve been taught.

“When we give our kids realistic education,” said Nathan, who opposes marijuana use by minors, “we can much more expect them to listen to us if we say ‘this is really a bad idea.’ ”

Dylan Hewitt, director of intergovernmental relations for City Comptroller Scott Stringer, directed members of the Assembly to a May report from Stringer’s office that found marijuana legalization could generate as much as $436 million in new tax revenue for the state and $336 million in the city.

Yasmin Hurston Cornelius, president of the New York Minority Alliance, said she hopes if New York State legalizes marijuana, some business would be steered to “folks of color … from these communities” where marijuana prohibition has hit hardest.

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