New York could soon make it easier for people to legally get high. On Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his proposal for the state to legalize and regulate the cannabis industry. Though this would make New York the latest to embrace cannabis, health policy experts are pushing for a plan that openly tries to address the long-running harms caused by the criminalization of drugs.
The proposal was unveiled in the lead up to Cuomo’s State of the State address for 2021, set to be delivered next week in a virtual address. There are still few details about how such a program will be implemented or its logistics. But according to the Governor’s office, it will follow the basic model set by other states, including an age limit of 21 and older.
“Despite the many challenges New York has faced amidst the covid-19 pandemic, it has also created a number of opportunities to correct longstanding wrongs and build New York back better than ever before,” Governor Cuomo said in a statement released by his office. “Not only will legalizing and regulating the adult-use cannabis market provide the opportunity to generate much-needed revenue, but it also allows us to directly support the individuals and communities that have been most harmed by decades of cannabis prohibition.”
Assuming it isn’t beaten to the punch, New York would become the 16th state to legalize recreational cannabis. In the November 2020 elections, four states passed ballot measures to legalize it, including neighboring state New Jersey. And though Cuomo has voiced his reluctance to back cannabis legalization in the past, his administration did change tack in 2018, when it announced that the state’s Department of Health would examine the issue. In 2019, Cuomo signed a new law that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of cannabis as well as expunged cannabis-related misdemeanors from residents’ criminal records.
That said, drug legalization advocates have remained skeptical of Cuomo’s overtures. The decriminalization law in 2019 didn’t go as far as many had hoped. And there have been criticisms from activists regarding how Cuomo has handled policies meant to address the drug overdose crisis. New York’s history with drug criminalization is no picnic either, with cities across the country aping the “broken windows” model of policing popularized by the NYPD in the 1990s. Though lauded at the time, the model is now criticized for having unjustly incarcerated many Americans of color for drug use, while doing little to help those with real drug-related problems. Even today, Black and Hispanic people in the U.S. are still disproportionately arrested for drug possession, despite little evidence that they use these drugs more.
Understandably, advocates want Cuomo and New York to go above and beyond in ensuring that cannabis legalization doesn’t leave behind the communities most ravaged by the War on Drugs.
“Governor Cuomo and the legislature can cement New York as the national model for marijuana legalization by centering community reinvestment, equity, and justice within our comprehensive reform,” said Melissa Moore, New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement provided to Gizmodo. “We can do this by making our legalization effort one that benefits those who have been harmed by prohibition and focusing on creating equitable jobs and small businesses across the state as New York looks to recover from the pandemic. Given New York’s appalling history with racially-biased marijuana enforcement, we must be bold and innovative in creating justice and equity.”
Still, given this announcement and the recent electoral victories this past November, it seems that the country’s mind on cannabis really is starting to change for the better.