The New York Cannabis Conversation Continues

City Council public hearing, from the front row. (Morgan Hines / NY City Lens)

The conversation surrounding marijuana carries on in New York City as the state continues to consider legalizing it for adult use.

On February 27, the City Council held a joint public hearing at City Hall with the Committee on Justice System, the Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing, and the Committee on Civil and Human Rights. The oversight hearing was titled “Marijuana Legalization: Equity and Justice for NYC.”

Participants included representatives from the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the New York City Commission on Human Rights, the Manhattan District Attorney office, as well as members of the public and advocates. District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance used the hearing to re-state his office’s decision that it would not be prosecuting marijuana cases, as he did in a press release in July of 2018.

“My office is essentially out of the business of marijuana prosecutions,” Vance said at the hearing. That includes the consumption of THC oil, according to Vance’s testimony.

Vance said his office conducted a six-month review of other jurisdictions around the country in which marijuana is no longer prosecuted criminally. The office also looked at its own record: in 2017 alone, he said, his office booked 5,453 arrests, and less than six percent of those arrested had a violent conviction at any time in their lives. The conclusion, Vance said, was that those being arrested for  marijuana are not a “violent cohort,” nor are they the driving factor behind crime in their own neighborhoods.

Vance’s office declined to prosecute marijuana smoking and possession cases as of Aug. 1, 2018. He also said that in September, he moved to dismiss and seal virtually every open marijuana case dating back to 1978. There were more than 3,000 of these, and 79 percent of those cases were involving New Yorkers of color. Some 46 percent of the offenders were 25 years old or younger.

When asked by Council Member and Chair of the Committee on Public Safety Donovan Richards if he supported full legalization of marijuana, Vance replied: Yes.

But Vance also said that it is important to “proceed thoughtfully,” and to consider issues while legalizing such as: public health, packaging and labeling, impaired driving, and the black market that would linger even after legalization.

The danger now, Vance said, is that while cannabis usage is on the rise in New York, it’s unsafe because it is unregulated. “The average customer doesn’t know what he or she is buying, what it could be laced with, or how potent it is.” The solution, he said: regulate.

Other City Council members, including Council Member Fernando Cabrera and Council Member Chaim Deutsch, were favorable toward legalization.

Cabrera said that, looking at the data, he was concerned about the inability to identify whether someone driving after smoking marijuana was intoxicated or not. Deutsch agreed. “Shouldn’t we first come up with a way to detect” marijuana levels in a person’s system “before we decide to legalize something?”

Deutsch also voiced his worries about children and young adults, particularly how marijuana could impact their development and education.

Vance said the legal age for adults would be 21 and over. “I think we need to look at the reality of today—marijuana is here,” he said. “We are the largest black market for marijuana in the country. Are we going to regulate it and try to provide some order around it?

In January 2018, Governor Andrew Cuomo instructed the Department of Health to run a study on the impacts of regulated recreational marijuana—in terms of health, criminal justice, and economics. The study determined that the positives of a regulated recreational marijuana market in the state of New York would outweigh the negatives, according to a statement from the Governor’s office in August, 2018. He then formed a working group to draft legislation for regulated recreational marijuana for adults. Mayor Bill de Blasio supported Cuomo’s call to legalize.

New York City, according to a report prepared for the hearing by the joint committees, will face a unique set of challenges if recreational marijuana is legalized by the state. “Any effort to address them will have to balance the range of complex and competing residential, business, and consumer demands.”

In addition, the report said, the city must consider the communities in the City that have been harmed in the past by the criminalization of marijuana.