The New York City Comptroller’s office is recommending marijuana legalization, finding that taxing and regulating the substance would generate revenue of $400 million annually and have even more significant social justice benefits.
“Regulating marijuana would keep thousands of New Yorkers out of the criminal justice system, offer relief to those suffering from a wide range of painful medical conditions, and make our streets safer by sapping the dangerous underground market that targets our children. As if that weren’t enough, it would also boost our bottom line,” said Comptroller John Liu.
Liu commissioned a report on the benefits of a legalization scheme that includes a provision for medical marijuana, and the removal of all criminal penalties for possession of up to one ounce of pot. The plan envisioned by Liu is similar to that passed by ballot initiative in Colorado and Washington in November, but also incorporates legalization of medical marijuana (which exists under separate laws in Colorado, Washington, and 18 other states). Private dispensaries would be licensed and charged fees, and sales and excise taxes would be imposed. Use of marijuana in public and while driving would be prohibited. In addition to the estimated $400 million in revenue this would generate, the report estimated that the move could save $31 million in law enforcement costs. He proposed using the funds generated to reduce tuition for City University of New York colleges by as much as 50 percent.
The report comes on the heels of a groundbreaking federal court ruling Monday finding that the New York Police Department engages in unconstitutional racial profiling when officers aggressively stop-and-frisk. Most stops result in no arrest, but among those that do, the most common grounds for arrest is marijuana. This is so even though marijuana possession is already decriminalized in New York, unless it is in public view. Reports suggest that police are arresting New Yorkers after asking them to take marijuana out of their pockets pursuant to a stop and frisk, and then considering it in “public view.” New York arrests more people for marijuana than any other state, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. Liu’s report noted that African Americans and Latinos bear the brunt of disproportionate marijuana arrests.
But a measure to legalize marijuana may have to come from the state, not the city. And state bills to legalize medical marijuana, as well as extend decriminalization to marijuana in “public view” have failed. A legalization measure like the one Liu envisions would be even more expansive than either of these, not only removing criminal penalties for minor possession, but also creating a legal mechanism for producing and selling marijuana, regardless of whether it is for medical use.
Momentum is building for a public health-based approach to drug policy, as Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday he would institute a policy of seeking lower sentences for some low-level drug offenders. In an interview leading up to the announcement, Holder said the War on Drugs has led to the “decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color.” The U.S. Sentencing Commission is also meeting this week, and is expected to consider recommending lower sentences in its guidelines.
Law enforcement tactics are also a running theme in the mayoral race. While Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) has remained a stalwart defender of stop-and-frisk and opponent of marijuana legalization, most of the Democratic candidates support scaling back the stop-and-frisk program. Other candidates have previously supported state measures to limit marijuana prosecutions.