How Close Are We to Legalizing Weed in New York?

With an early win for 2014, supporters of legalized cannabis in New York are confident that attitudes have shifted enough, statewide as well as nationally, for real change to take effect this year.
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As Colorado embarks on a pioneering venture to fully legalize, tax, and regulate cannabis, other U.S. states look on to assess whether a similar approach could be effective in their own constituencies. With both a tax and regulate bill as well as a medical cannabis bill introduced to the state senate in 2013, New York could be the third state, after Colorado and Washington, to fully legalize marijuana. The recreational bill is modeled after Colorado's current system, making its performance there over the next few months carry serious implications for its potential to win support in New York.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, introduced in the New York state legislature this past December, aims to gain support by addressing many of the same problems Amendment 64 attempts to remedy in Colorado. New York leads the nation in marijuana arrests, which disproportionately target minorities, as exemplified by the ongoing controversy over the police's "stop-and-frisk" policy. Though not explicitly stated in arguments for Amendment 64, Colorado law enforcement statistics showed a similar bias in cannabis arrests through 2010. More universally, a legalization model frees up law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes rather than non-violent drug offenses. And of course, no state can ignore the prospect of a rich new channel of tax revenue. Colorado has already proven legal cannabis to be a market success. With the New York bill adding on-site consumption to its model, the potential for growth, and thereby tax revenue, looks very promising. But Colorado established recreational sales only after it had achieved a working medical model. Can New York, a state without a precedent, effectively double-clutch into both recreational and medical legalization?

Absolutely, says Evan Nison, co-founder and director of the New York Cannabis Alliance, citing strong bipartisan support of both bills in the state legislature. "The benefits of the medical bill are getting through to conservatives who initially opposed legalization of any kind," says Nison. Since it was introduced in June, 62 assembly members and 14 senators have agreed to co-sponsor the medical bill, known as the Compassionate Care Act. The more recent tax and regulate bill is just beginning to build support, with four assembly members and two state senators cosponsoring thus far.

Despite a somewhat promising show of support, the state senate proved sluggish in 2013 when it came to marijuana reform. Though the state assembly passed a decriminalization law and a medical marijuana law for seriously ill patients, the state senate adjourned without moving on either.

This is why having two bills in play may actually be beneficial to the effort, according to Derek Peterson, founder of Terra Tech, a grow equipment supplier with plans to invest in New York's potential legal cannabis market. "Even if the recreational bill doesn't have a shot, it helps the medical bill move forward by bringing more eyes to the issue itself." Peterson foresees that having a more radical bill for full legalization makes the medical bill appear tame and reasonable by comparison, allowing lawmakers to support it with significantly less risk. The downside to two bills may be that they confuse the legalization issue for both lawmakers and the general public.

There is no guarantee that the state legislature will complete action on any marijuana reform bill in 2014, but just four days into the new year, the New York Times reported that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is set to announce an executive order, bypassing the state legilature, that allows for 20 hospitals in the state to treat seriously ill patients with cannabis. Though Cuomo remains publicly skeptical of medical legalization, this demonstration of malleability on the issue puts him on par with the opinions of state residents, 82% of whom support medical legalization, according to a 2013 poll. This coalescence recalls Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signing Amendment 64 into law even though he publicly opposed it, citing a "genuine shift in public opinion." Both Cuomo and Hickenlooper are up for re-election this year.

With an early win for 2014, supporters of legalized cannabis in New York are confident that attitudes have shifted enough, statewide as well as nationally, for real change to take effect this year. While the arguments for and against it have remained ideological, Colorado's progress in 2014 will provide New York, and other states considering legalization, a tangible demonstration of what legalization can accomplish and where it may falter.

Abdullah Saeed writes Weediquette for VICE every Sunday and News of the Herb for High Times every Friday.

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