New York State just legalized recreational marijuana, to the cheers of some and the consternation of others.
This is an issue on which I’ve long sympathized with concerns on both sides. I do accept the judgement of health care professionals who attest to the medicinal attributes of cannabis, so I fully embrace its legalization for legitimate medical treatments.
But I have no professional expertise about the effects of marijuana. Nor, although I came of age during the counterculture, can I speak from personal experience, having never even felt tempted to smoke a joint—probably because, like many of my fellow boomers, I rejected that counterculture that is supposed to have defined our entire generation.
Nevertheless, I share the concerns of legalization supporters about the costs of enforcing marijuana prohibitions, from policing, to prosecutions, to incarceration; and the harm done to those who end up in prison and are then dogged with a criminal record for what they feel was a “victimless crime.” And I am troubled by the wide racial disparities in marijuana arrest rates highlighted in a 2020 report by the American Civil Liberties Union.
On the other hand, I note past Bureau of Justice statistics indicating that incarceration rates for marijuana possession alone (absent other crimes) have been miniscule—less than one percent of all state inmates nationwide—with many of those having used marijuana possession to plead down from more serious crimes.
And I share the concerns articulated by, among others, the New York State Catholic Conference about:
- “Today’s ultra-potent marijuana” and it’s unclear impact “on developing brains.”
- Marijuana as “a gateway drug” that can lead some into devastating addictions and criminal activity to support their habits.
- Its potential to “result in higher incidence of impaired driving and operation of machinery by adults.”
- The “irresponsibility” of legalizing “recreational use of a substance designed to be inhaled deeply and held in the lungs,” especially “at this particular moment in history when we are suffering from a horrific pandemic involving a novel virus that attacks the lungs.”
- Legalization sending “a message to children that marijuana is harmless fun endorsed by the state.”
And not just children. It is one thing to expunge criminal records, ease burdens on the criminal justice systems, and end draconian sentencing—to the extent it actually exists. It is another thing to give the law’s imprimatur to recreational marijuana by fully legalizing it, effectively encouraging its use.
And that brings me to another concern: the New York State government’s vision of marijuana sales as a cash cow to replenish their perpetually overdrawn state financial coffers.
“Tax Collection Projected to Reach $350 Million Annually” blared Gov. Cuomo’s news release—well before it got around to citing the alleged injustices corrected by legalization, or the safeguards that purportedly protect against its dangers.
It is one thing for governments to end prohibitions against potentially self-endangering behaviors, substituting public safeguards for criminal sanctions.
But when government comes to depend on self-destructive behaviors as sources of revenue, it is but a short—and inevitable—step toward the state encouraging, rather than just allowing, such behaviors.
We have already seen this with gambling, where New York—and numerous other jurisdictions—did not just legalize previously prohibited forms of gambling; it took them over, making lotteries and off-track betting state-run operations.
The rationale was that people were going to play the numbers and bet the ponies anyway, so better for the state to get the revenue, and put it toward public services, than for it to go into the pockets of organized crime.
But in short order, New York began advertising its lotteries and OTB, in order to increase its take. No longer was the state simply trying to redirect existing gambling monies into government coffers. It was now using advertising to try to attract new bettors, those who weren’t gambling previously, and to get those who were to bet even more; disregarding the dangers to those afflicted with gambling addictions—and their families—and to economically vulnerable populations particularly susceptible to the lures, and the personal devastation, of excessive gambling.
How long before something similar happens with marijuana revenues? Before there is a shortfall in that projected $350 million annually, or the state decides that $350 million a year is not nearly enough? How long before more people need to be encouraged to use marijuana, and to use more of it? Before the state is advertising the pleasures of “getting high,” drawing in those most vulnerable to its “gateway” to addiction and crime, its potential damage to health, its impact on one’s employment and family? How long before the government is tempted to lessen safeguards, or to lower the legal age in order to tap into the teen market?
Governments need to raise revenues. They also need to exercise fiscal restraint. In too many jurisdictions—certainly in New York—the emphasis is almost exclusively on the former. How much they raise, however—and how they raise it—become moral issues when governments, refusing to exercise fiscal restraint, become so desperate for ever more revenue that they resort to schemes that encourage self-endangering behavior—in the process exploiting those populations most vulnerable to the destructive effects of such behavior.