The United States of Marijuana—What to Expect in the Year Ahead
Illinois rang in the new year by legalizing the sale of recreational marijuana. Long lines formed at dispensaries, and government officials began counting all the increased tax revenue from first-day sales that topped $3.2 million. Unlike most of the other states to legalize marijuana, which did so via referendum, Illinois took legislative action. The victory, along with consumer demand and overwhelming popular support, signals the likelihood that more states will loosen their laws or fully legalize pot in 2020—that is, unless more reasonable voices prevail.
The debate in New York State, which centers less on the well-documented potential health hazards and more on how to divvy up the spoils, illustrates the tactics guiding marijuana legalization. After failing last year to pass legislation approving adult-use recreational marijuana, Governor Cuomo is winning over lawmakers by addressing hot-button issues. One is social and economic justice for communities disproportionately penalized by past drug laws. The other is a commitment to spend tax revenue on the “social good”—ironically, for drug treatment and prevention programs—as well as educating people about the risks posed by marijuana.
Let’s consider each of these arguments. Certain communities, such as those of color, have indeed been unduly hurt by harsh drug policies. But ensuring low-income and minority entrepreneurs get a share of the soon-to-boom pot market will not “repair the damages…from the war on drugs,” as Cuomo’s new “Weed Czar,” Norman Birenbaum, has claimed. Rather, it would likely bring more drugs and despair to those communities, whether they are inner city or in rural areas upstate.
Recycling tax revenues from pot sales to treat drug addiction is also a flawed concept. While the lure of tax dollars animates support for legalization among government officials and politicians—including most of the Democratic presidential field—many states that legalized have so far failed to reap the expected tax windfall. Moreover, any additional revenues would no doubt be needed to pay for a host of increased costs—including drug treatment and law enforcement—related to a spike in cannabis use.
In addition, this false argument provides cover for the government’s current failure to adequately fund drug treatment. With the opioid epidemic still raging, and meth and cocaine use on the rise, there is no time to wait for tax money from weed sales to ensure treatment is available for people struggling with substance abuse.
Still, there is some hope for a more sensible approach that focuses on regulation. Birenbaum, himself, has said as much, noting marijuana-related products should not be “marketed or distributed to the most vulnerable members of our community, particularly children.” Cuomo also indicated that new legislation would, as before, include an opt-out clause for counties that don’t want pot stores.
While marijuana possession should be decriminalized, there must be a regulatory structure in place to control how, where and to whom products are sold. In addition, the FDA needs to crack down on vaping devices that contain marijuana, as well as fraudulent claims for the marijuana derivative CBD. Ideally, imposing a national moratorium on further legalization would provide sufficient time to study its impact so far. But given the current political climate and powerful pot lobby, that is unlikely to happen.