Legalizing Marijuana

4 Marijuana plant.jpg

Legalizing Marijuana

As more and more states out West legalize marijuana, it has become clear that legalization is going to happen in New York State. The first step, legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, has already been taken. There are now doctors with access to the drug who can write prescriptions. The use of CBD's is widespread, and, though it does not involve the psychoactive part of the plant, its use has helped to normalize the idea that marijuana is useful and needs to be studied further. In early August, Governor Cuomo signed a bill that was a step towards removing marijuana from the drug wars. This bill made possession of the substance punishable by a fine. It now has the legal equivalency of a parking ticket, and those who have been convicted of using small amounts of the drug can have their records expunged. Governor Cuomo called the legislation part of fixing the “broken and discriminatory criminal justice process.” So we are on our way to legalizing marijuana, but there are many unresolved questions as to how this will be done.

First, with medical marijuana, some doctors have been licensed to prescribe the drug, but there are thus far very few of them. People in need of the drug need to find such a doctor, visit that doctor for an examination, and then get him or her to prescribe the drug. The cost is very high due to taxes and regulation, and it is not covered by most forms of insurance in New York. So the drug is legal, its effects are well known, but it is hard to get and costly. Many people prefer to get it locally from an “underground” source where it is readily available and far easier on the wallet.

A further issue is that the pending Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act will be providing the structure for an industry. It is estimated that the industry will be providing something in the neighborhood of 3 billion dollars in tax revenues. It is Senator Zellnor Myrie's belief that, given the amount of money involved, the act should be created as part of the Budgetary Process. This would mean the act could be created much earlier and be more thoroughly vetted in the legislative process. One important consideration would be whether licenses would be given out widely or just to a few companies. Large companies out West that are already well funded and have operating experience would prefer the latter. They argue regulating a few companies with funding and experience would be the way to go. However, another way to go, one supported by the Drug Policy Alliance, would be to encourage small companies like the microbreweries now proliferating. Competition between them might lead to better quality and lower prices. In addition, such companies might be based on “underground” operations that have existed for a long time and have a stable customer base. Myrie believes this approach makes sense, especially as a matter of fairness. It is the minority communities that have born the brunt of the war on drugs; they have paid a price in incarceration, the breaking up of families, exclusion from housing and employment. If the war on drugs resulted in a “broken and discriminatory” system, then efforts should be made to set the score right. If funding and business experience are lacking, then this could be made good through a state run bank and training programs, and also help in securing licenses.

Another issue is where marijuana should come from. Senator Myrie points out that marijuana legislation is popular upstate, even in areas that are quite conservative. It is his view that many of the supporters are struggling farmers, the same people who in desperation might have leased their land to frackers. Out West there are already many large growers who would be delighted to ship to the market in New York. However, one wonders if this would be best for New York. With the same kinds of encouragement that might be offered to small dealers, the state could develop an agricultural industry that is much needed in depressed areas upstate and on Long Island, and because it is competitive and local, that industry might produce a better, lower-cost product.

And just as farmers' markets have become popular as a way of getting fresh, organic produce to the public, so might this form of distribution, which cuts out the middleman, work for marijuana production and use. It also becomes a way of creating a direct link between the city and the country, one which could be two-way. Just as families travel to farms outside the city to buy fruits and vegetables and sometimes even harvest them, so might a similar relationship be possible with marijuana, both retail and wholesale.

If the Drug Wars were a terrible mistake, one that caused awful pain and suffering to thousands and thousands of people, in correcting that mistake, the focus should be on remedying the damage done, getting rid of criminal records, getting people funding and training to be productive themselves, as well as employ others, to develop businesses that are centered in their communities be they urban or rural. Surely it would be wrong to just have a handful of out-of-state corporations primarily benefiting their executives and stock holders.

If we believe in a democratic society, part of that democracy needs to include the economy, and this is especially true of the marijuana industry, one that is going to emerge one way or another. Right now we have the time to develop the political will to see to it that this happens the right way and not another. Political democracy without the right economic structure to support it, will inevitably give way to corruption -- one dollar, one vote. With the marijuana industry that doesn't have to happen.

– John DeWind

UpdatesRobbie Klein