Legalization of marijuana will be at the top of New York’s 2020 legislative calendar. Our elected oﬃcials have a welcome chance to ﬁnish the task begun last year when cannabis was decriminalized and the prison records of thousands of inmates incarcerated for possession were expunged.
How New York implements legal marijuana matters a lot. Three key principles should guide the debate.
First, we must not allow the rise of Big Weed to follow in the pattern of Big Tobacco and Big Pharma. The health damage done to a generation of smokers by corporate peddlers of cigarettes and the devastation created by conscienceless executives pushing opioids are cautionary tales that responsible leaders cannot ignore. While marijuana health risks may not be as severe as those of tobacco or opioids, we must prohibit aggressive advertising and sales of marijuana, particularly to youngsters.
Second, we must recognize the fact that communities of color suﬀered disproportionately from enforcement of marijuana laws, so justice demands that residents of those communities be given ample opportunity to beneﬁt from the new commercial opportunity legal marijuana oﬀers. After years of higher arrest rates despite similar usage compared to whites, people of color should have the opportunity to become entrepreneurs and business owners in this emerging market.
Third, legislators must avoid the temptation to treat the revenue potential from marijuana as a cash cow to fund favorite programs. It is not wise to create a ﬁnancial incentive for the government to promote cannabis use.
There is a simple way to do justice to all three imperatives. Limit licenses for any individual selling marijuana to a single county, and limit storefronts to, say, just three. Complement that rule with a small business loan and grant program that favors applicants who seek to open commercial cannabis enterprises in the communities where they live. Perhaps give preference to local residents who had been incarcerated only for possession.
Combined with tough regulatory restrictions similar to the ones that apply to tobacco and liquor, this approach would allow people who want to use cannabis responsibly to do so. At the same time, it would prevent the rise of a distribution network prone to the damaging excesses that occur when investors with large pools of capital seek proﬁt from a substance with addictive qualities and potential for abuse. And it would provide ample opportunity for entrepreneurs from the communities most aﬀected by the war on drugs to share in the commerce to come.
Our elected oﬃcials have a chance to end years of injustice by creating a new legal industry with positive qualities for users and commercial beneﬁts for the communities most aﬀected by past mistakes. Let’s hope that our leaders approach this year’s discussion of legal marijuana with clear heads and open minds.
Originally posted as an op-ed with the Times Union.