In June 2019, New York decriminalized the possession of marijuana under two ounces, giving people a way to avoid the life-altering penalties that could stem from a drug conviction. Now the state is considering recreational marijuana legalization thanks to a push from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, leaving residents to wonder what that could look like for New York.
Kevin Sabet is a former White House policy advisor and the founder and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). He advocates for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana around the nation and believes that legalization is a step too far.
“I predict that if we do legalize marijuana in New York, whether it’s in 20, 30 or 50 years, we will regret it,” he said.
Even with that prediction, Cuomo is moving forward with his push to legalize the plant. In February, he announced plans to travel to states where marijuana is already legal, including California, Colorado and Massachusetts.
Several experts had predicted New York would package marijuana legalization within the state budget, which was set to be signed on April 1. However, COVID-19 has since derailed those plans and Cuomo opted to leave marijuana legalization out of the budget process until the country and world can return to normalcy.
Below is an explanation of the law change that occurred in 2019.
How fines and sentencing changed with New York's 2019 decriminalization act
How the law changed
Episode 2: Decriminalization and legal ramifications
Along with the legalization of marijuana in New York could come the opportunity for as many as 160,000 people with prior marijuana convictions to have their criminal records expunged — just one of the many legal issues that approving recreational marijuana will factor into.
While he supported the 2019 bill that decriminalized small amounts of marijuana possession, Syracuse City Drug Court Judge James Cecile has concerns about allowing the drug to become legal especially without better ways to test those driving under the influence.
“I don’t believe that we need another way for people to get impaired,” Cecile said.
As more states move to loosen restrictions on marijuana, officials are searching for new ways to accurately assess whether or not a person is inebriated while driving.
Stanford University psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys said that marijuana creates challenges when it comes to testing.
“You can test positive when you haven’t smoked in a week if you’re a heavy user because it stays in the body,” Humphreys said. “We don’t know the standard of how much cannabis means you’re impaired.”
Episode 3: Marijuana’s financial dilemmas
Conflicting definitions within federal and state laws as to cannabis’ standing as a legal or illegal drug have caused a host of financial problems for business owners across the country.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Company (FDIC) insures the money that is at banks nationwide, protecting the assets of millions of Americans. But because of the federal prohibition on marijuana, the FDIC cannot insure money that comes from the cannabis industry.
That means dispensaries and distributors in states where marijuana is legal are relegated to being cash-only businesses, which makes them targets for theft and forces them to have more security than a bank in some cases.
Laura Schultz, an economist at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, said that it is difficult for start-ups to get on their feet without the support of a bank. Just like the cannabis itself, money cannot cross state lines, otherwise, it becomes a federal offense.
If recreational marijuana is legalized in New York, researchers suspect it will be taxed heavily as it has in states like Colorado and California have done. Some say this is positive because the additional tax revenue could benefit schools and cities. But others fear that the high taxes will send consumers in search of cheaper options through illegal vendors.
Episode 4: Farming interests
Farming is a difficult industry that relies on variables such as weather, trade and labor. Even so, New York farmers believe that if the state legalizes the adult use of marijuana, they should be able to have a say in regulations and take advantage of the agricultural opportunities.
Massachusetts native Kyle Moffitt wants to revolutionize how the plant could be grown.
Moffitt said there’s a flaw in a system that is new to the United States: innovation. When marijuana became legal in Moffitt’s state for medical purposes in 2016, he was one of the first in line. While he was excited about getting marijuana that was legal, the feeling wore off when he had a “less than positive” experience.
“What was negative about it was that you could tell right away that it wasn’t focused on the patient,” Moffitt said.
Relying on his engineering and architecture background, Moffitt helped start STEM Cultivation where he and his colleagues are creating a vertical growth method that grows marijuana plants at a higher rate while using less energy and space.
Episode 5: A gateway drug?
With an opioid crisis already a national issue, a debate continues as to marijuana could introduce drug users to more addictive and potentially lethal substances.
Syracuse City Drug Court Judge James Cecile said he deals with very few cases in his treatment court in which people have a substance abuse problem that is strictly cannabis, but it’s rare that drug offenders don’t have marijuana somewhere in their lives.
“I have absolutely seen a connection to people starting out with marijuana or smoking marijuana and then moving on to harsher drugs such as heroin or opioids and things like that,” Cecile said.
Colin McCallin, a defense attorney in Denver, Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal, also deals with clients with drug addictions, however, has never heard of someone dying from smoking too much marijuana.
But pot’s potency with higher levels of THC in recent years concerns former White House policy advisor Kevin Sabet.
“We’re adulterating it,” Sabet said. “We’re getting the THC from it and totally abnormal ways in ways we’ve never done it before. We’re extracting it and getting it in 99% oils that you have to put on the end of the needle and then put it in a device that you’re going to vape.”
Sabet, who is now president of the organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, acknowledged that marijuana users don’t use all drugs but research continues in search of a connection.
“There are plenty of people who use marijuana,” he said. “The vast majority of them never use other drugs; 98% of heroin and cocaine users used marijuana first. So researchers are looking into that mechanism. Why is that? Is there something in the brain that primes the brain to want a bigger high to want a drug like an opiate, or cocaine?”