In 2000, when a Pew Research Center poll found 30 percent of Americans supported the recreational use of marijuana, broad legalization of the drug seemed unthinkable. In January, that same poll found 61 percent of Americans supported legalizing the use of marijuana.
What was once unthinkable is becoming unstoppable. But if legal pot is not properly taxed and regulated, the consequences would be unbearable.
Last week was an extraordinary one for legalization momentum. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, once an opponent, said he would introduce federal legislation to decriminalize marijuana and leave regulation to the states. Passage would mean that federal prosecutions and persecutions of users and suppliers, still an issue even in states that have legalized, would no longer be a threat.
Former House Speaker John Boehner, who in 2011 said he was “unalterably opposed” to legalization, last week announced a change of heart. He has joined the board of Acreage Holdings, a multistate marijuana corporation, and says ending the federal prohibition would allow scientific study of the drug’s benefits, assist veterans who can be helped by its use and stem the opioid epidemic. President Donald Trump is signaling he won’t let anti-pot Attorney General Jeff Sessions crack down in the nine states where recreational use is legal, or the 20 more that allow medical marijuana. And the increasing benefits felt by older Americans suffering from chronic pain, cancer, glaucoma and other illnesses have created an unexpected source of support.
In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s gradual conversion from opposing legalization to supporting it is accelerating. Democratic primary opponent Cynthia Nixon’s embrace of full legalization is central to her campaign. Even presumptive Republican candidate Marc Molinaro supports the expansion of medical marijuana and wants to see how full legalization plays out in neighboring states.
The public’s change of heart is justified by data. The path for states that have passed full legalization, while not without bumps, has generally been smooth. There have been no huge surges in crime or addiction, and a growing body of evidence shows opioid use and related deaths decline in states that legalize medical marijuana and drop even more in states that allow recreational use. Tax revenue has flowed in, with marijuana sales generating $250 million for Colorado in 2017. Pointless prosecutions that often disproportionately punished minorities have stopped.
Schumer’s bill and similar ones in the House are not likely to pass yet. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans, and while pro-marijuana sentiment is rising among GOP voters, it’s not yet great enough to force leaders to support legalization.
Right now, the most important decisions are being made at the state level, but it’s becoming clear that federal decriminalization also will be necessary to address some needs.
It’s not a coincidence that the push for full legalization in New York is heating up as legal retail sales creep closer. On New York’s border, Massachusetts stores will throw open their doors on July 1 to sell pot. Maine voters just approved full legalization, and the state is working out the details of retail sales. And New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is pushing for legal sales and use.
A February Siena College poll found that a majority of voters in every region of New York, where a medical marijuana law was passed in 2014, support full legalization. And there is no reason New York should let its marijuana money flee the state, as it did with gambling revenue for decades.
But New York needs to do this right. Strict controls over sales and harsh penalties when they are broken are needed to keep legal marijuana from minors. There needs to be a consensus about licensing and zoning for sales. Where should stores be allowed? Would communities have a say in whether they host stores, and how many? Taxes on marijuana, while not punitive, must raise enough money to fund programs to prevent opioid addiction and expand treatment. Dosage information must be reliable so users don’t inadvertently consume too much.
Police need laws and tools to detect and arrest people who drive stoned. That would be easier with diagnostics and standards funded and developed nationally, as with blood-alcohol levels. Federal legalization could smooth that path. Removing marijuana from the federal drug prohibition schedule would finally allow rigorous research to determine what illnesses and symptoms it alleviates, and what provable health effects its use causes. That information would mean marijuana could be prescribed by doctors for military veterans who need it to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues. Now, Department of Veterans Affairs doctors can’t legally recommend it, much less prescribe it, and have VA benefits pay for it. When it’s a proven medical remedy, Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance also should cover it.
American opinion on marijuana has shifted because it has become clear that the war on marijuana is more damaging to society than its consumption. Change is coming quickly, but there is still time to do legalization right.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this editorial gave the wrong date for legal sales of marijuana in Massachusetts. It has been updated with the correct date.