Article by Janet Burns, Forbes
This week, Vermont and New Hampshire moved to legalize cannabis for adult use, signifying a major step in states’ acceptance of the plant along the East Coast, and in their opposition to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ tenacious stance.
In New York, where legislators have largely left drug laws unchanged since the ’70s, and where marijuana arrest rates continue to lead the nation, a panel of lawmakers will now hear testimony from some of the state’s most experienced–and patient–advocates for reform.
On Thursday morning, the New York State Assembly Standing Committees on Codes, Health, and Alcohol and Drug Abuse will convene a public hearing to discuss the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act(MRTA), aimed to legalize the use, distribution, and production of cannabis for adults aged 21 and over.
As part of their research on the bill, which was floated to little effect in previous assembly sessions, the legislative panel will hear testimony from a range of medical, legal, and policy experts in the state who are calling for an end to the ban (with livestreamed video available from 10:30 EST, and after the fact here).
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit focusing on drug reform advocacy and education, and which helped to build and promote the bill, MRTA would create a system to tax and regulate marijuana in a similar way to alcohol, and “effectively end marijuana prohibition in New York State.”
On the whole, New Yorkers have increasingly indicated that they’re ready to ‘green-light’ the state’s cannabis industry. Late last year, a poll found that around 62% favored legalization, while more than 60% supported its taxation and regulation for the sake of addressing New York’s budget deficit.
As the country’s leader in marijuana arrests, New York was estimated to have spent over $1 billion on enforcement between 2002 and 2012, and $675 million in 2010 alone. Experts have also estimated that the state spends between $1,000 and $2,000 in police, court, and jail costs to process each arrest for simple marijuana possession.
Today’s testimony comes from representatives of such legal, immigrant, and human rights groups as LatinoJustice, the National Action Network, Brooklyn Defender Services, the Legal Aid Society, VOCAL-NY, and the Partnership for the Public Good, as well as numerous medical professionals and researchers.
In addition to the cost of enforcing prohibition and the benefits and relative safety of marijuana, speakers will emphasize the enormous impacts that New York drug laws have had on immigrants, communities of color, young people, and state residents as a whole.
Since 1997, New York State has performed more than 800,000 arrests related to cannabis, with the vast majority being for small-scale possession or use in public (not distribution), as is the case with arrests in the rest of the U.S., according to Start SMART NY. Today, the state’s population is close to 19.75 million, meaning marijuana arrests have occurred at a rate of nearly 1 per 25 residents in the past two decades.