There’s a famous, often repeated line from the Frank Sinatra song “New York, New York”: “If I can make it there/I’ll make it anywhere.” That line could end up being unexpectedly relevant if New York ends up legalizing medical marijuana. If the law can make it in New York, then marijuana laws could end up changing in the rest of America as well.
Of course, the law has to be passed first, and that hasn’t happened yet. It is getting closer, though. Keep reading to find out how close New York is getting to legalizing recreational weed, and what that could mean for the rest of the country.
The History of Marijuana in New York
The 20th Century
New York has one of the most colorful and interesting weed chronicles in America, ranging from the surprisingly progressive to the surprisingly weird. Let’s start with the former. In 1914 it was possible to legally obtain marijuana provided you had a prescription. That’s right, medical marijuana was legal in New York at the turn of the 20th Century. This lasted until 1927, when marijuana was outlawed completely.
As for the weird, at one time New York was practically overrun with marijuana plants, growing like weeds all over the city. During the summer of 1951, sanitation workers, dubbed the White Wing Squad, were tasked with finding, uprooting, and incinerating the plants. They managed to destroy 41,000 pounds of it, a total worth over 6 million dollars at the time.
In 1939, mayor Fiorello LaGuardia formed the Laguardia Committee, which was the first in-depth study of marijuana use in America. The study lasted for five years and was published in 1944, with a report by the New York Academy of Medicine. Among other things, the LaGuardia Report stated that marijuana was not a gateway to harder drugs, and that it was not responsible for many societal ills.
The report was surprisingly progressive for the time, and even for the present time. Unfortunately, one of the conclusions the report reached is that black and Latin-American people are the majority of marijuana smokers. This conclusion would have troubling consequences in later years.
Late 20th and Early 21st Century
In 1977, the city decriminalized the possession of 25g or less of marijuana. However, possession in public view was still a misdemeanor. This was a loophole that was exploited between 1997 and 2010, when over 500,000 people were arrested for that reason, over 80% of whom were black or latino. In 2014, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio directed the NYPD (New York Police Department) to issue tickets for minor drug infractions, instead of performing arrests. Arrests briefly dropped in 2016 but they shot up again soon after.
In January 2018, Governor Andrew Cuomo commissioned the New York State Department of Health to examine the consequences of legalizing recreational marijuana. The Regulated Marijuana Report concluded that a regulated program of legalization has more positives than negatives.
This report is monumental because, as recently as 2017, he was referring to marijuana as a gateway drug, a belief that was refuted in 1944. Some believe that this is a move meant to appease his critics. Others believe that it is meant to fend off the challenge of his Democratic Primary opponent, former Sex and the City actress, and pro-legalization advocate, Cynthia Nixon. Regardless of whether he was pushed or not, it is a step in the right direction.
The Future of Legalized Weed in New York
The report is seen as positive news for marijuana advocates, who cite the racial disparities in marijuana involved arrests, as well as the revenue potential, as reasons to pursue legalization. Another reason is that New York’s closest neighbors are all taking action on marijuana reform. New Jersey is orchestrating a push towards complete legalization with its own weed bill.
Neighboring Massachusetts has already legalized recreational use, a move that results in many New Yorkers visiting the state to partake of its legal weed. This contributes to an increase in revenue for Massachusetts, and a loss of potential revenue for New York. There is also the looming specter of Canada, which has recently become the second country in the world to completely legalize weed.
Canada is right next door to New York, meaning that the Empire State is surrounded by places that have already legalized, or are planning to legalize, recreational marijuana use. This means that New York would be one of the few places in the NorthEast where smoking joints, vaping weed and extracts, and consuming edibles is prohibited.
New York’s Next Step
Weed legalization seems inevitable in New York. It might not happen in 2018, but it will certainly happen soon. The state has already made the move towards further decriminalization with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neill announcing a new marijuana enforcement policy aimed at curbing the excessive number of arrests.
The policy states that anyone caught using marijuana in public will be issued a summons and have to pay a $100 fine, instead of being arrested. There are exceptions, for example, anyone on parole, or who has a warrant, will be arrested. The mayor believes that this will prevent over 10,000 people from being arrested in 2019.
This is an excellent start, but going all the way to full legalization will ensure that the Big Apple remains one of America’s, and the world’s, cultural touchstones.