Brooklynites Debate Whether to Legalize Pot

(Occupy Weed Street)

(Luna Rouge Pictures/Occupy Weed Street)

Legal marijuana in New York City? An activist group called “Occupy Weed Street” expressed its enthusiasm for the idea last week at a community board meeting in Brooklyn, making an economic argument.

Marijuana legalization “helps this community become a better, more livable place to live,” said Harrison Shultz. He and Lorna Shannon are founders of the Occupy Weed Street group. At the Community Board 1 meeting in Brooklyn on Tuesday, they voiced their support for city council member Stephen Levin, who proposed a citywide resolution on February 4 to support State Senator Liz Krueger’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. Krueger (D-Manhattan) introduced this legislation, which would legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana under state law, along lines similar to the state’s current system regulating alcohol, in December.

“Prohibition of marijuana is a policy that just hasn’t worked, no matter how you look at it, and it’s time to have an honest conversation about what we should do next,” said Sen. Krueger in her official statement introducing the bill. “The illegal marijuana economy is alive and well,” she said, “and our unjust laws are branding nonviolent New Yorkers, especially young adults, as criminals, creating a vicious cycle that ruins lives and needlessly wastes taxpayer dollars.”

The Marijuana Act would remove penalties for possession of two ounces of marijuana or less, make 18 the minimum legal age for marijuana possession and consumption, and allow for home cultivation of up to six marijuana plants.

“By regulating and taxing marijuana like alcohol, allowing for people to grow their own medicine, creating jobs, and providing money for education and addiction treatment, we can economically empower the people to take back control of their communities once again,” says Shannon. Tuesday’s community board meeting was held, of all places, at the Swinging 60s Senior Center.

Kevin Sabet, president of the Smart Approaches to Marijuana lab—and who used to speak on behalf of Obama administration on the subject of marijuana legalization—does not agree: “Legalization means big bucks for Big Marijuana—the industry that has emerged to fight for profits, just like Big Tobacco of the last century,” he wrote in an email. “Yes, we can reform current laws and make it so people don’t go to jail for low-level use, but we don’t have to legalize marijuana in order to do that.” He also added that “We should do whatever we can to discourage—not encourage—use.”

Sabet, like others, thinks that the major concern about marijuana should be health issues related to recreational use. “Weekend use of today’s highly potent marijuana triples one’s risk of a psychiatric disorder; daily use increased that risk five times,” Sabet said referring to a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry.

According to a “DrugFacts” sheet by National Institute on Drug Abuse from January 2014, marijuana use “may have a wide range of effects, particularly on cardiopulmonary and mental health.” According to the paper, when used heavily by young people, it also affects the thinking and memory and the changes may last a long time or even be permanent. The DrugFacts report also states that “a large long-term study in New Zealand showed that people who began smoking marijuana heavily in their teens lost an average of eight points in IQ between age 13 and age 38.”

Shannon, from Occupy Weed Street, does not agree with the health-related arguments: “Engaging in recreational activities relieves stress and boosts the immune system,” she said. “Recreational marijuana is a gateway drug to a healthier happier society.”

Some think that the debate should be taken out of the political realm. Margaret Haney, director of Marijuana Research Laboratory at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, says that it is critical to recognize the difference between medical marijuana use and legalization. “They’re very different issues,” Haney wrote in an email. “My opinion is that voters should decide yes or no on legalization but not on medical marijuana. “What is considered a medicine should be based on data, not votes,” she added.

Occupy Weed Street disagrees. “We often say that you aren’t really for medical marijuana if you’re not for recreational legalization because you can’t have the former without the latter,” said Shannon. She thinks that marijuana should not be used solely for the purpose of curing problems, but preventing them.

The senate session is going to end in June. By that time Occupy Weed Street is going to organize several events “harrassing the legislature to pass the bill.” Shannon is not optimistic about the outcome: “Although we are very excited and dedicated to this issue, we doubt that the marijuana is going to be legalized in 2015,” she said.