New York Health Department to Recommend Marijuana Legalization

By Alfonso Serrano Jun 19, 2018

The push to legalize marijuana in New York received a critical boost on Monday (June 18) when the state’s health commissioner announced that the Department of Health (DOH) will recommend full recreational use of the drug in an upcoming study.

The report, commissioned by Governor Andrew Cuomo, will recommend to legislators that the Empire State join nine other states and Washington D.C. that allow adults to legally consume recreational cannabis. It also points to border states that have legalized the drug as an added impetus for the recommendation.

"Our border states have already legalized marijuana or are in the process of doing so," New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said in a statement. "The report is being finalized, but it concludes the pros of a regulated program outweigh the cons." 

Legalization advocates applauded the announcement, but remain wary of the report’s details. In particular, they hope it addresses the disparities in marijuana policing that have taken a lopsided toll on communities of color.

"There is ample evidence that ending marijuana prohibition is a smart way for Governor Cuomo and the Legislature to uphold the rights of all New Yorkers and support economic and racial justice," Kassandra Frederique, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. "Ultimately, the best way to address the disparities and challenges posed by prohibition is to create a system to tax and regulate marijuana that will repair and reinvest in communities that have been most harmed by the marijuana arrest crusade."

A recent study showed 86 percent of cannabis-related arrests in the city between 2014 and 2016 targeted Black and Latinx people, despite similar rates of marijuana use between Whites and people of color. And a report from The New York Times last month found that citywide, Blacks are arrested at eight times the rate of Whites. In Manhattan, that ratio is 15 to 1.

In May, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city’s police department will revamp its cannabis enforcement policies in an effort to reduce the disproportionate arrests of Blacks and Latinx people. "We must end unnecessary arrests and end disparity in enforcement," he said at the time.

The district attorneys in Brooklyn and Manhattan mirrored de Balsio’s announcement, saying they planned to drastically curb the prosecution of marijuana-related offenses that have unjustly targeted people of color.

Cuomo has been more hesitant to embrace legalization. Last year, he referred to marijuana as a "gateway drug." But amid legalization movements in neighboring states—New Jersey, Vermont, Massachusetts—and public opinion polls that overwhelmingly favor legalization, he greenlighted the health department study in January. 

The study, according to Zucker, will recommend the implementation of a regulated program that delineates who can purchase the drug, who can grow and distribute it, and the rate at which it can be taxed.

A study released last month by the New York City comptroller’s office pegged the state’s marijuana market at $3.1 billion, with tax revenues yielding about $1.3 billion annually at the state and city levels.

Despite the DOH study, it’s unlikely that lawmakers will take up legalization this year. The state Legislature concludes its annual session on Wednesday (June 20). Legalization enjoys support among the Democrat-led Assembly, but the Republican-controlled Senate has already said it will not mull cannabis legalization this year. Fall elections could tip control of the Senate to Democrats.