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Hank Greenberg: It's Time To Legalize Pot In NY

You may be surprised to hear that the New York State Bar Association supports the legalization of adult-use recreational marijuana.

Why would the largest and oldest association of lawyers, sworn to uphold and defend the rule of law, take a position in favor of something that — even if legal at the state level — would remain outlawed by the federal government?

Why?  Because this is what we do at the State Bar.  We serve as a resource for policy makers, by providing objective, informed legal analysis on important issues, and making recommendations aimed at doing the public good.

State officials have been wrestling for years with the thorny question of whether to expand the legal use of marijuana beyond a medical program authorized in 2014.

Governor Andrew Cuomo made legalization a top priority in last year’s legislative session.  But he and State lawmakers failed to come to an agreement.

This year, the Governor and the Legislature are trying again.  

As New York considers whether to adopt legalization legislation, neighboring states are either moving in the same direction or have already acted.

Many New Yorkers are traveling across the border to Massachusetts, where the first recreational marijuana stores commenced sales in 2018.  Some stores report that up to half their customers are New Yorkers. 

This translates into a lot of lost revenue for New York.  Plus, the products New Yorkers purchase in Massachusetts are neither regulated nor overseen in a manner our own elected officials have deemed appropriate. 

Today, the center of gravity has moved to a place where New Yorkers in growing numbers recognize the need to regulate this massive black-market industry — an industry from which the State derives no tax revenue, and over which it has no control.

Support for legalization is now mainstream in a way that 25 years ago no one would have expected.

After careful study, we have concluded that the use of marijuana should be legal, so that the public health is protected, the consuming public is not cheated, and the State derives a financial benefit. 

Legalized marijuana use legislation should include:

  • USDA mandated cannabis testing
  • A comprehensive State Office of Cannabis Management
  • Provisions for local municipality “opt-out”
  • State taxation
  • Advertising and marketing guidelines
  • State environmental protections.

The legislation should also encourage full participation in the regulated marijuana industry by people from communities that have previously been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement and use tax proceeds to positively impact those communities.
The National Academy of Sciences has found little evidence that the decriminalization of marijuana leads to a substantial increase in its use.

That said, we have more to learn about cannabis and its impact on human health.  Legalization will help make it possible to get funding for that research. 

In our democracy, there is rarely a great social issue which does not eventually become a legal one.  Such is the case with cannabis legalization.  It’s a controversial subject that generates strong opinions, both pro and con. 

But the time has come for lawmakers to act.  That’s what we do here in the bellwether state of New York. We lead.

The law is a mirror of society and changes in society impact the development of the law.  What once seemed unthinkable can, in the digital age, quickly become conventional wisdom.  And, while the law must be stable, it also cannot stand still.  The law embodies the development of attitudes and social mores in society through the years. 

Same-sex marriage as a constitutional right is a good example of this phenomenon, as well as the power of lawyers to safeguard liberty, eliminate discrimination, and achieve social justice.

When I attended law school in the mid-1980s, it would have required prophetic powers to envision a society that viewed sexual orientation as a legal irrelevancy and same-sex marriage as a constitutional right. The AIDS epidemic was raging, taking the lives of 46,344 people by 1989, and three out of four cases were gay men.  Fear gripped the nation.  Homophobia was rampant.

Undaunted, lawyers battled for equality in the courts and public opinion ultimately turned.  The states scrambled to keep pace until eventually New York’s Legislature created a statutory right to same-sex marriage, and the nation’s highest court made it the law of the land nationally.

We are witnessing a similar situation play out with marijuana legalization.  It is an idea whose time has come and provides an opportunity to make right years of harm done to communities paying the price for outdated drug policy.  But because the wheels of justice grind slowly, it is up to states like New York to lead the way.

Henry ‘Hank’ Greenberg is president of the New York State Bar Association.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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