It had almost been a foregone conclusion: New York state lawmakers were going to legalize marijuana for recreational use this year.
Not so fast, apparently. And that’s a good thing.
Advocates for legalization pointed to the hundreds of millions of dollars that could potentially be raised from weed sales and taxes.
They pointed to the fact that nearby Massachusetts had already legalized and that New Jersey was quickly moving to do so.
Those states would have their coffers stuffed with weed-generated tax dollars, putting New York at a competitive disadvantage.
Others said that legalizing was a social justice issue, because blacks and Hispanics had disproportionately been busted for weed over the years. This was the way to right an historic wrong.
The fact that other states around the country, including California, Oregon and Colorado, had already legalized made the whole endeavor seem more mainstream, more normal. Weed wasn’t a drug to be eradicated. It was a cash crop to be embraced, the answer to all our financial woes. Polls across the country show that a majority of Americans favor legalization.
What was New York waiting for?
Ignored, dismissed or downplayed were the basic questions that any debate about legalizing marijuana has to include: How would it be kept out of the hands of minors? How would law enforcement deal with stoned motorists? How would those tax dollars be distributed? How would the potential ill effects of weed, mental and physical, be addressed?
Things were moving so fast that it seemed that the process would be to legalize first, figure out the fine details of the program and regulation later.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who at first was against legalizing weed for recreational use, was suddenly all in favor. Primaries from increasingly leftward challengers will do that to you.
With Cuomo on board, and Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature, there seemed to be nothing to stop legalization.
It was seismic shift in public health policy, and it was being done in less time that it takes to roll a joint.
But that momentum has slowed in the last couple of days.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said that Cuomo and lawmakers might not be able to hammer out an agreement on weed in time for the March 31 budget-submission deadline. Heastie said that it while it wouldn’t be impossible to make a deal, he wasn’t optimistic. He said getting it right was the goal.
Could it be a political gamesmanship? Sure. Assembly lawmakers could be slowing the roll in order to make sure that they’re major players in the debate, and have a big voice in deciding how the weed spoils are divided.
No matter. It’s good to take a long look at this. Just the other day, the Mental Health Association of New York State urged lawmakers to be proceed cautiously as they consider legalization.
In a prepared statement, the group voiced concerns about addiction and about weed’s impact on the neurological development of young people.
The group also suggested that tobacco-like warning labels, expanded outreach about the effects of the drug, and a prohibition on weed use by those under 25 be part of the weed debate.
All good ideas.
As Staten Islanders, we also have to ponder whether legalizing any drug is a good idea while our borough continues to be ravaged by fentanyl, heroin and prescription painkillers. Is now the time to add another ingredient to the drug cocktail?
On the one hand, government tells people to avoid smoking. To avoid sugar. To avoid salt. To not drink and drive. To slow down on the roads. To be safe.
But with the other hand they’re going to hand you a bong? What am I missing?
There are plenty of questions. And, really, plenty of time.
Tom Wrobleski wrote this piece for the Staten Island Advance.