The New York State Assembly Standing Committees on Codes, Health, and Alcohol Drug Abuse opened the floor to discussions related to cannabis legalization in the state.
The legislative assembly on Thursday last week convened a public hearing on arguments for and against the proposed MRTA or Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which aims to legalize the use, production, and distribution of recreational cannabis for people aged 21 and up. The panel heard testimonies from various legal, policy, and medical experts who are calling to end the prohibition of recreational cannabis in New York.
NY’s drug laws
State legislators have left New York’s drug laws practically unchanged since the 1970s. The state has also been in the lead when it comes to cannabis-related arrests throughout the country. This is why reforms on NY’s cannabis laws have been floated in previous assembly sessions. However, previous calls for reform have had very little effect and have even hit a dead end.
According to Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who heads the assembly’s health committee, New York needs to take a look at its old drug enforcement laws now. He also said they wanted to hear from a diverse group, thus the panel’s move to hear testimonies from people with different fields of expertise.
Assemblywoman Crystal People-Stokes, meanwhile, said that current drug laws in the state disproportionately target the people of color.
On Thursday’s hearing, 26 individuals testified before the panel.
Dr. Julie Holland, a psychiatrist, was among those who gave some of the most compelling and pertinent testimonies in favor of legalization.
Holland, who spent nine years as attending physician at the Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric emergency room, pointed out that on a daily basis, all Americans consume drugs in various forms for the purpose of changing their consciousness. These drugs include caffeine, anti-anxiety medication, nicotine, sleeping pills, alcohol, pain meds, and even sugar. She emphatically stressed that alcohol and cigarettes kill Americans en masse, while cannabis does not.
Dr. Holland noted that while cannabis can be detected in urinalysis, synthetic cannabinoids that are dangerous, like Spice and K2, can’t be detected, and these are being consumed by military men. Thus, she said that NY’s current policy is irrational.
What’s more, Dr. Holland contends that broadly legalizing cannabis in New York is needed in order to combat substance abuse and to stop the opioid epidemic plaguing the entire country.
Another testimonial came from the Drug Policy Alliance’s state director, Kassandra Frederique, who cited a few disturbing statistics. According to her, the police arrested around 23,000 people in 2016 – approximately at 60 arrests per day – for low-level weed possession. Around 85 per cent of these arrests were minority millennials, specifically blacks and Latinos below 30 years old.
Meanwhile, David Holland, Esq., Empire State NORML’s executive and legal director, expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that residents cannot directly vote on the issue and have to instead rely on their state legislators’ decisions.
Advocates also said that if the state can pass cannabis legislation, there would be social justice as well as a tax windfall.
Andrea Suilleabhain of the Partnership for the Public Good said that approving recreational cannabis will generate new tax revenue and will save the state costs associated with wasteful law enforcement. The money that the state will get from cannabis tax can be used for repairing some of the damages that resulted from this unequal enforcement.
It is estimated that between 2002 and 2012, NY spent over $1 billion on enforcement, and in 2010 alone, it spent about $675 million. Experts also estimated that NY spends $1,000 to $2,000 in processing each arrest (police, jail, and court costs) for simple pot possession.
Sheriff Barry Virts, on the other hand, expressed concerns about the possible law reform. Virts, who is the New York State Sheriff’s Association’s incoming president, said that his officers are also worried about the possibility of more people driving while high cannabis.
Virts, further voiced out his concern about cannabis legalization being counter intuitive in light of the fact that many people are also battling drug addiction, especially on opioid.
However, Dr. Julia Arnsten, Albert Einstein College of Medicine professor, cited studies showing that cannabis has an opposite effect in legalized states. She said that deaths from overdose in pain medication went down 25 per cent in states that have legalized cannabis. Dr. Arnsten said that these findings suggest that with cannabis being legalized, people instead turn to cannabis instead of opioid meds.