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Lax Enforcement of New York’s Marijuana Law Endangers Kids

A New York State licensed cannabis dispensary sign at Union Square Travel Agency in New York, US, on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023. New York’s latest challenge in its rollout of legal marijuana is all the shops have opened in close proximity in Manhattan, with none in areas of the city and state that have been hit hard by the war on drugs. (Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomberg)

About a decade after states began legalizing recreational marijuana use, there’s little doubt who the biggest winners have been: criminals. And it’s equally apparent who the biggest losers have been: kids. New York state’s disastrous experiment with legalization is making both of those facts painfully — and dangerously — obvious.

There are now some 1,500 illegal pot shops across New York City, many of them openly advertising their wares on brick-and-mortar storefronts. Last year, illegal vendors did about $2 billion in sales statewide — better than Broadway shows. It’s as easy to buy an ounce of pot as it is a slice of pizza.

Under the law passed by the New York State Legislature, possession of more than 3 ounces of marijuana is still illegal, and possession of 8 or more ounces is a felony carrying a prison sentence — but one would never know that by looking at all the illegal shops and their advertising. Just think about the signal it sends to criminals that government is unwilling to crack down on so many storefronts selling drugs illegally — often to children.

Drug and alcohol incidents in the city’s public schools are up 29% over the past year, with middle schools seeing even bigger jumps. That’s especially troubling given the overwhelming scientific evidence that marijuana can harm the brains of young people. Even the youngest children are at risk: A recent study found that between 2017 and 2021, the number of US children accidentally ingesting pot products rose 1,375% — and about 8% ended up in critical care.

And what are kids buying at these illegal shops? An analysis of 20 illegal pot stores in the city found that about 40% of their products contained contaminants such as E. coli, salmonella, lead and other heavy metals. One product understated the drug’s main psychoactive ingredient, THC, by half. The potential for fentanyl lacing is most worrisome of all.

Advocates promoted legalization as a way to increase tax revenue, establish a safe marketplace, and reduce arrests and criminal penalties. But experience has shown that the only way to achieve the first two goals is to abandon the third, by cracking down on the illegal stores that undercut legal sellers. And the only way to achieve the third goal is to abandon the first two, by allowing shops to sell untaxed and unsafe products at a discount.

Most states have opted to take the latter route, hoping to collect new revenue without taking responsibility for enforcement. Not surprisingly, illicit stores have flourished while licensed shops and growers have struggled to turn a profit. Many have gone out of business. The brand started by Jerry Garcia’s family recently folded up shop in California.

In New York, the legislature rushed legalization into law without having any system in place for licensing or enforcement. The state took so long to get a licensing operation up and running that entrepreneurs had nearly two years to establish illicit operations — and they took full advantage.

Voters should demand that New York’s governor and legislature take responsibility for this mess and fix it. Every elected official who voted for legalization and won’t fix the problem has essentially voted to allow illegal stores to sell marijuana to kids — which is disgraceful, and voters shouldn’t forget it.

New York’s experience should be a warning to the nation. The goals of the legalization movement are utterly at odds with each other. The free lunch legislators sought — more tax revenue with no enforcement responsibilities, health risks or youth dangers — was always a fairy tale. Now that it’s gone up in smoke, it’s time to get serious about protecting children.

Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, UN Special Envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions, and chair of the Defense Innovation Board.

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