The New York Department of Health has issued a report concluding that “the positive effects of a regulated marijuana market in NYS outweigh the potential negative impacts.”
Initiated at the request of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, health officials reviewed the “health, criminal justice and public safety, economic, and educational impacts of a regulated marijuana program” in the state.
It found that the legal regime of marijuana prohibition has “not curbed marijuana use and has, in fact, led to unintended consequences,” like the disproportionate criminalization and incarceration of minorities. It estimates that a statewide legal marijuana market would be worth between $1.7 billion and $3.5 billion, which could generate anywhere from $248 million to $677 million in annual tax revenue for the state.
The report is notable for its full-throated adoption of arguments that have been put forth by legalization supporters for years. It acknowledges that marijuana is less harmful than legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco, and that legalization and regulation is the best way to mitigate the harm posed by use of the drug.
It notes evidence supporting medical uses for marijuana, particularly its potential to help curb the opioid crisis. It suggests that the greatest risks associated with marijuana use are due to the legal status of the drug, which has led to “more than 800,000 arrests for marijuana possession” in New York in 20 years. The report also makes an economic case that legalization will lead to a reduction in law enforcement costs, and bring jobs and tax revenue to the state.
The study represents something of an about-face on marijuana policy for New York, which has lagged behind a number of its neighbors, including Vermont, Massachusetts and Canada on marijuana policy. The state didn’t have a medical marijuana policy until 2014, nearly two decades after California voters approved the nation’s first medical marijuana law in 1996.
As recently as last year, Cuomo maintained that he was opposed to marijuana legalization because he believed that the plant was a “gateway drug” — a claim refuted by the new Department of Health report, which says that “the research community generally does not recognize the premise that marijuana leads to the use of other substances as a legitimate or plausible assertion.”
Cuomo is facing a primary challenge this year from former “Sex and the City” actress Cynthia Nixon, who has put the issue of legalization front and center in her campaign. “In 2018, in a blue state like New York, marijuana shouldn’t be an issue,” Nixon said in an April campaign video. “If there was more political courage coming out of Albany, we would have done this already.”
A May Quinnipiac poll of New York voters found that 63 percent supported “allowing adults to legally possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use.” Support was 71 percent among Democrats, 66 percent among independents, and 40 percent among Republicans.
About 15 percent of New Yorkers over the age of 12 already use marijuana in any given year, according to federal survey data. FBI crime statistics show that there are nearly 16 marijuana possession arrests each year for every 1,000 marijuana users in the state, putting New York in the middle of the pack on users' likelihood of getting arrested.
The report suggests that officials believe that marijuana legalization in New York is just a matter of time. “It has become less a question of whether to legalize but how to do so responsibly,” the authors write.