It is well-established but worth repeating that the War on Drugs is a disaster for everyone it touches. The mass incarceration, gang activity, persecution of people of color, lost tax revenue, and blocked research, all perpetrated by the war, make it one of the nation’s greatest self-inflicted wounds.
Now we are seeing a wave of marijuana legalization, beginning in the West and continuing in the East. After Colorado and Washington led the way, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont followed suit. Now nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult recreational marijuana use.
The benefits brought on by legalization - studies have shown it to reduce crime, curb opioid abuse, decrease teen marijuana use and raise property values - could help catalyze similar initiatives in other states. Michigan is voting on legalization this November, which could pave the way for Pennsylvania, Illinois and Minnesota.
Attention is now on New York and New Jersey, which together represent 29 million people. These two states could be a tipping point for legalization, but that will only occur with substantial and sustained support from the people who live there.
New Jersey has been progressing toward legalization since the election of Democrat Phil Murphy to the governor’s mansion. Lawmakers are hoping to pass a legalization bill this summer, but it’s not clear whether they have the necessary votes. And while some New Jersey cities welcome the arrival of cannabis, about 17 have banned or restricted it within their borders.
In New York, a recent State Department of Health report calling for legalization has moved the needle, and provided some cover for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to embrace the issue as he tries to head off a primary challenge from progressive Cynthia Nixon. The two states are also pressuring each other as they compete to see which will be the first to score the windfall of cannabis enthusiasts arriving on the PATH train or taking the Holland Tunnel.
Citizens in these states who want the laws to change must make their feelings known. Legislators need to feel some heat from their constituents, because many would be content to leave this issue in limbo.
“If this came up as a voter referendum, it would pass overwhelmingly,” New York state Sen. Diane Savino, who authored the state’s medical cannabis bill, told me. “But when you work through the legislative process, there are some members who still aren’t sure.”
Cuomo, with his re-election and potential presidential run at stake, may be particularly sensitive to political pressure.
Even in states where legalization has occurred, differences in how programs are run can have a big impact. For instance, provisions that bar felons from establishing cannabis business licenses can perpetuate the inequalities of the War on Drugs. These can be mitigated with equity provisions, like the one in Massachusetts that provides training and technical assistance and waives fees for cannabis business license applicants from communities disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs.
Nationwide legalization of marijuana is now likely inevitable. But injustice prolonged is injustice perpetuated. It’s time for New York and New Jersey to advance the issue through legalization. That will increase the pressure on other states and make it more likely that the next Democratic president will soften the federal restrictions around criminalization.
The stakes are high for swift and well-executed legalization in these two states.
Owen Poindexter of Berkeley, California, is a freelance writer focused on politics and baseball.