My last 4/20 “Celebration”: Reflections on New York Legalization on a Bittersweet Tuesday Evening

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

Reefer Madness Talk Poster
Reefer Madness screening poster. Image courtesy of the author.

Two nights ago, I was in my car, headed to Utica College for a film screening and discussion. Earlier in the day, I had presented a conference paper for this past year’s cancelled American Historical Association meeting, which has been holding virtual online sessions over the past few months. I was thinking back to when Colorado passed its state referendum legalizing adult-use cannabis in 2014. At the time, I had wondered how I would celebrate if New York ever got around to legalizing marijuana. Since it was April 20, I imagined my first “legal” celebration of the so-called high holiday. I certainly didn’t imagine spending the entire day preparing for two public talks and abstaining.

I actually chuckled to myself for a bit. But then, immediately, my thoughts shifted as my phone rang and my brother informed me that the jury in the case of Derek Chauvin had come back with three guilty verdicts. When I had left the house, the jury was still in deliberations, and, so, it caught me a little off guard. Finally, some justice. But what sort of justice? Just then I pulled into the Utica College lot and checked in with Covid screener. The awareness hit me that I was about to lead a potentially whimsical screening of Reefer Madness, the absurd 1930s exploitation film, and discuss the arrival of legal weed in New York as part of the post-film discussion. I reckoned with the fact that this ridiculous film, along with all of the other absurdities in the war on drugs—even as we chuckle—has had really significant consequences that have been building for generations.

At that moment, I became certain about something I had felt for some time: legal weed has stopped being celebratory. I’ve never had to worry about my relationship with cannabis, even though I’ve had plenty of times when it could have caused serious problems. I’ve had no fewer than FOUR police interactions either while weed was in plain sight or with marijuana actively burning in my car. Yet, I have no marijuana-related infractions or arrests on my record, and I’ve never been mistreated by police. By contrast, when defending the police’s use of deadly force in the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, far too many people (including members of my own community) justified murder, in part, by highlighting Brown’s past relationship with marijuana.

So, we need to end our “celebration” of legal weed. I too, am guilty. In a January 2019 post on this site, I went so far as to label New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s unveiling of his 2019 legislative “Justice Agenda” as his “Rooseveltian moment.” Notwithstanding the embattled governor’s response to recent allegations of sexual misconduct which have rendered his calls for “justice” rather hollow, his 2019 Justice Agenda failed to become the transformative policy position that he had touted. Central to this failure was the inability of the state legislature to agree on the details of marijuana legalization, one of the central pillars of his annual message that year.

After being further delayed by the pandemic in 2020, New York has finally passed comprehensive marijuana reform with the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) approved by the Legislature on March 30 and signed by Governor Cuomo the next day. This time, the credit, most appropriately goes to Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Liz Krueger, the Democratic sponsors of the assembly and senate versions of the bill, respectively. The New York State assembly has succeeded in enacting (potentially) the most progressive and justice-minded version of legalized weed in the nation.

Peoples-Stokes and Krueger
The Rooseveltians this time: Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes (left) and Senator Liz Krueger (right) fighting for legalization back in 2017. Image from Senator Krueger’s Official NY State Senate page.

The main sticking point last time had been how to spend the revenue generated by adult-use sales. Some in New York City had hoped that a portion of the revenue might be used to upgrade the public transit system that is in dire need of repairs, while other interests were clearly ready to capitalize on the emergence of one of the largest cannabis markets in the country. But the 2021 legislation is clear. 40 percent of revenue generated from adult-use cannabis will go to education; 40 percent will go to the Community Grants Reinvestment Fund (specifically targeting communities impacted by the war on pot); and 20 percent will go to the Drug Treatment and Public Education Fund.

Another point of contention had been the lack of solid provisions that helped New Yorkers in communities targeted by the war on pot to receive a significant and productive portion of the economic benefit from the licensing of legal operations. While the 2019 proposal included vague language prioritizing these communities, the 2021 regulatory framework explicitly limits the ability of existing medical marijuana business to acquire more than a handful of additional licenses before the state gives preference to women, minorities, and people with prior marijuana convictions.

The MRTA, which also includes expungement provisions and investments in drug education and treatment, is a significant achievement. A few reasons remain for skepticism, however, and there are things to monitor over the coming months as the full regulatory picture comes into view. State regulators have eighteen months to turn these lofty-sounding provisions into practice as they construct the regulatory structure for an expanded medical marijuana and industrial hemp program and establish rules for the cultivation, distribution, and sale of marijuana for the adult-use market. A year and a half is a long time, and, between now and then, we’ll have to closely watch the influence of “big pot” on these social justice provisions.

We’ll also have to keep an eye on how different localities around the state adjust to state-level legalization. The MRTA allows municipalities to “opt-out” or to more tightly regulate marijuana. New York State residents are now allowed to smoke marijuana pretty much anywhere that tobacco use is allowed (with the notable exception of their car). Municipalities, however, can further restrict public consumption spaces at their discretion. For some users, these restrictions would be merely inconvenient. For far too many, though, these might be life-changing nuances in the law. People who live in public housing, for instance cannot smoke tobacco indoors, and they would not be able to smoke pot without the designation of “social consumption sites.” Local-level discretion or restrictions might particularly impact poor people who depend on medical cannabis and could also potentially lead to more significant consequences affecting their eligibility for housing assistance.

Most troubling of all—and what remains a key sticking point for me—is the continuing discussion of impaired driving. Sheriffs around the state have routinely used impaired driving as a wedge issue in their continued opposition to legal marijuana, and the signed bill allocates funds for police to work with universities to develop a reliable test to detect cannabis intoxication. While I obviously don’t condone impaired driving, the concern over it is misdirected. Without the ability to detect cannabis in a driver’s system, police can no longer use the sight or smell of cannabis to justify elevating a traffic stop—a common tactic in problematic policing that has too often led to violent confrontations and excessive use of force.

The impact of New York State’s legalization of marijuana, then, is still to be determined. From the outset, however, it appears the state legislature is about to take a legitimate first step towards ending the futile War on Drugs and to make real attempts to right the wrongs of that war—especially for those communities and those individuals most ravaged by its injustices. This new law will not bring the victims equivalent justice, and it is not an end point (recall George Floyd’s death was “blamed” on his prior use of fentanyl, not marijuana). But New York’s marijuana legalization has the potential—just like the conviction of Derek Chauvin in Floyd’s murder—to begin the process.

And so, in New York, we begin.

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