John Faso: Marijuana - To Legalize Or not?

Mar 27, 2019

In the thank goodness for small favors category, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has removed marijuana legalization from his budget proposal.  This will allow the legislature and the public to have a more considered evaluation of the issue.

A Siena Research poll earlier this month, said that New Yorkers favor legalization of “recreational” marijuana by a 53%-43% margin. This is a smaller margin than some other national and New York State polls.  Democrats support legalization by an almost 2/1 margin; Republicans oppose the effort, by a similar margin and independent voters are only slightly in favor.

Arguments in favor suggest that legalization is simply reflecting the reality that many people now use marijuana anyway, people are rarely prosecuted for small possession of the drug and that the train is leaving the station as 10 states now permit legal pot.

Government officials argue that the state should be able to reap the benefits of a legal, fully taxable product.  Estimates range up to $300 million annually which could be collected in New York.

However, there are strong counter arguments on this subject. 

On the heels of the raging crisis with opioids devastating our society, why would we now legalize yet another intoxicating product?  Not a single professional medical organization in the state supports legalizing marijuana, citing numerous health-related risks associated with marijuana use.

States which have legalized marijuana have also seen an increase in use among young people.  There are serious health concerns about marijuana use among the young significantly affecting brain development and also having been associated with increased paranoia and psychotic behaviors. 

What hasn’t received much attention is the fact that tobacco and liquor interests are quietly purchasing large stakes in marijuana businesses.  Recently, one of the largest liquor businesses in the nation purchased a 40% share in an Ontario-based pot company.  This may be a smart business move for the company; but a strong indication – just as Philip Morris has taken a large stake in the nicotine vaping company Juul – that big alcohol and tobacco are surely going to wind up running legal marijuana businesses. 

Tobacco and alcohol companies are expert at many things; but they’re especially expert at marketing.  Anyone who believes that such marketing - especially of edible marijuana products – won’t be targeting teenagers and young adults are kidding themselves. In Colorado, there are now more pot shops than there are McDonalds and Starbucks, combined!  Visitors to Denver report that one can’t walk down the street in that city without being enveloped in marijuana smoke.

Marijuana legalization also doesn’t eliminate the black market; state taxes imposed on the legal product guarantees that an illegal black market will continue to thrive.  Lastly, there is no readily available test for a police officer to determine if a driver is driving under the influence of pot. 

Drugged driving and motor vehicle fatalities are up in states which have legalized.  Employers are increasingly concerned that legal pot will increase the likelihood of prospective and current employees using the drug.  According to the testing firm, Quest Diagnostics, rates of drug test failure among employees are significantly rising in the states which have legalized marijuana.  And a new report from Colorado shows alarming numbers of people in that state being hospitalized due to effects of consuming edible marijuana.

All this suggests that – regardless of opinion polls - now isn’t the time to legalize marijuana in New York State.  Before we rush into creating yet another legal intoxicant in our society, we should more thoroughly assess the results and experiences in other states.

Former Representative John Faso of Kinderhook represented New York's 19th House district in the 115th Congress.

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