Is Recreational Weed Still in Play With New York State and City Lawmakers?


With New York’s medical marijuana law due to take effect this January, legislators are already crafting policy to legalize recreational weed for adult use.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), introduced by Manhattan senator Liz Krueger in December 2013 and sponsored in the state assembly by Crystal Peoples-Stokes, would end New York’s prohibition on marijuana and treat it similarly to alcohol. The bill would legalize the production, use, and distribution of marijuana for adults 21 and older.

“After decades of arresting marijuana users, the drug war has failed to prevent marijuana use or prevent minors from accessing marijuana,” says Peoples-Stokes. Marijuana prohibition, she says, has created a dangerous drug market that costs the state $675 million each year while also disproportionately targeting minorities. “Drug laws have also created a permanent underclass, with people unable to find jobs after a conviction,” she says. “One of the most damaging issues derived from the war on drugs is that the policies are inherently racist.”

Last night at a meeting on cannabis policy held by the New York City Bar Association Committee on Drugs and the Law, New York City councilman Rafael Espinal said marijuana prohibition is much more harmful to minority or low-income communities than the actual effects of smoking marijuana could be for any given person. “The war on drugs, the war on marijuana, is a lot more dangerous than actually a lot of people smoking marijuana,” said Espinal, who represents the 37th District, which includes Bushwick and East New York. “[Marijuana] doesn’t create any negative effects in the individuals; the negative effect is the policing that goes on in communities of color.” 

‘Marijuana legislation in New York is not about wait-and-see, it’s about starting to restore the communities that have been devastated by marijuana prohibition.’

In 2014, 86 percent of those arrested for marijuana violations were black or Latino, while only 10 percent were white. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the NYPD arrests blacks at seven times and Latinos at four times the rate of whites. In New York City, the neighborhoods with the highest marijuana arrest rates were Washington Heights and East Harlem, while the lowest was the Upper East Side, which is 90 percent white. Of those arrested for possession of marijuana, 77 percent were between the ages of 16 and 34.

“Marijuana prohibition has failed, and it has done so at tremendous cost to our communities,” says Senator Krueger. “Allowing personal use, with appropriate regulation and taxation, will end the heavily racialized enforcement that disproportionately impacts African-American and Latino New Yorkers.”

The law aims to close off the existing underground criminal marketplace to allow police to divert their resources to the areas that need them most. “[The MRTA law] is the kind of win-win that our communities desperately need,” Krueger says. 

Though the bill has thus far gained little traction in Albany, a conversation has begun about the real collateral consequences of prohibition, according to Kassandra Frederique, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance. “It’s great that Liz Krueger and Crystal Peoples-Stokes have taken this on and [are] putting racial and economic justice at the forefront,” she says. “While the issue of medical marijuana pushed many more people to care about cannabis policy, adult-use marijuana will benefit more people.” She’s hopeful that the issue of recreational cannabis will create “the kind of groundswell necessary to get it from a fringe issue to a serious issue.” 

But for any adult-use law to pass, there needs to be political will in the legislature, something that has confounded recreational advocates for years. Unlike in other states that have already legalized recreational marijuana through ballot initiatives, in New York only legislators have the power to change the law. New Yorkers will have to lean on their elected officials, Frederique says. “I think for better and for worse, we have a lot of cautious legislators who can sometimes lean on the wait-and-see approach,” she offers, referring mainly to New York’s more conservative senate. “For marijuana legislation in New York, that’s not an appropriate way to look at it. It’s not about wait-and-see, it’s about starting to restore the communities that have been devastated by marijuana prohibition.”