Here’s Where to Spend Revenues from Legalized Marijuana

David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

Now that New York Democrats control the governor’s office and both chambers of the state legislature, progressive policies that have been repeatedly thwarted in recent years – stronger rent-regulation laws, single-payer or a public option health coverage and funding of critical infrastructure – move to the top of the agenda in Albany.

That means it’s only a matter of time until, out of the necessity to back up the progressive agenda with budget appropriations, New York considers legalizing the adult use of marijuana.

I support legalization, but with rock-solid pre-conditions.  Collectively, elected officials around the state who represent poor, black and Latino communities should stake out their positions now.

It’s a given that some of the revenue generated must go to public education to prevent minors from using marijuana as well as to fund drug treatment and prevention services. Beyond that, a significant portion of the marijuana tax windfall should be directed toward critical needs that impact the working poor and communities of color.

The NYC Comptroller estimates the legalized recreational marijuana market at $3.1 billion, with the NYC market making up more than a third of this amount.  It would yield about $436 million in annual tax revenue.  This is a staggering number, and it must be spent wisely. We cannot allow these funds to simply go into the general fund and to be siphoned off into frivolous projects for well-heeled constituencies.

The obvious candidates for significant marijuana tax revenue are: the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), which serves the working poor; the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which has $32 billion in outstanding capital needs;  a health coverage option for those immigrants left behind under the Affordable Care Act; and, enhanced financial support for NYC Health + Hospitals (H+H), which serves the majority of the remaining uninsured.

The legalization of marijuana in New York is inevitable as a national consensus emerges that transcends political party and ideology.  Governor Cuomo took a big step toward legalization by appointing a group to study legalization and to draft legislation.

More than 6 in 10 Americans support legalizing marijuana, according to a new survey released by the Pew Research Center.  Today, a quarter of Americans live in states that permit the adult use of marijuana, without fear of arrest.   Throw in the fact that 33 states, plus Washington, D.C., allow marijuana to be used for medical needs according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

Mayor de Blasio this year announced a new policy to slash in half arrests for smoking marijuana in public. The goal was to bring an end to the mass arrests and incarceration of low-income blacks and Latinos.  Nationwide, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, blacks are arrested three times more than whites, despite similar rates of usage.

For legitimate good cause, black and Latino communities are wary about the benefits of legalization after the ravages of heroin in the 1970s and the crack epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s.  The draconian drug crime sentences imposed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller locked up tens of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders — especially for marijuana-related offenses — at an incredible human cost.  

There are worries that any economic benefits will be undermined by the social costs of legalization, such as impaired driving costs, mental illness, school dropouts and accidents in the workplace just to name a few.  Without a doubt there will be unintended consequences and impacts, but there is evidence the downsides may not be as bad as everyone assumes.  For instance, legalization of organic marijuana would undercut the sale of dangerous synthetic pot made up of leaves sprayed with unpredictable and diverse chemical combinations that go by a variety of names such as K2, Spice, Green Giant and Caution. They produce adverse consequences ranging from agitation to vomiting to hallucinations and violent behavior.

Two years after legal sales of adult use marijuana began in Colorado, the biggest fears that once preoccupied Denver city officials — higher crime, more drug use among teens and a drag on tourism — have not come to pass. Instead the expanded industry, with 21-and-over recreational sales joining a longer-sanctioned medical marijuana trade, has pumped millions of dollars into government coffers. 

When, not if, we go down the road of legalizing adult use of marijuana, and we’re well along the way there already (last session’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act had statewide support in both houses and will likely be reintroduced next year), the question becomes who benefits and who gets hurt.  I’m of the belief that the risks and tradeoffs become more palatable if we have an honest conversation about where the money goes.

And the most common-sense approach is for elected officials and advocates for the working poor, blacks and Latinos to withhold their support unless there are assurances their constituents will benefit. 

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