50 States

50 States: New York

By David Jenison

Medical: Legal in limited forms
Recreational: No
Decriminalized: In theory

New York will always hold a special place in the hearts of people who love cannabis and pop culture. Half a century ago, a 23-year-old Bob Dylan visited the Beatles at Hotel Delmonico in NYC. Beatlemania was at fever pitch, but Dylan just released “Blowin’ in the Wind” that month, and he would not crack the charts for another year. Though some Beatles members possibly tried cannabis once before in Germany, Dylan got the Fab Four high in their sixth-floor suite, and Paul McCartney expressed pride in making the plant’s acquaintance through The Bard.

As a sign of how far the Empire State has fallen, Hotel Delmonico is now the Trump Park Avenue apartments, and NYC has been called the marijuana-arrest capital of the world.

The state that gave America the Beatniks, Cab Calloway, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the LaGuardia Report and the Committee to Legalize Marijuana (LEMAR) barely takes 23rd place on the list of states to legalize medical and/or recreational cannabis. In 2014, second-generation NY Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a severely restrictive medical marijuana (MMJ) bill that takes effect in 2016. Medical users can consume cannabis via capsules and vaporizers (no smoke, no edibles) provided by no more than 20 dispensaries, and the range of plant product is as restricted as the number of conditions for which it can be prescribed. Gov. Cuomo, whom most believe has presidential ambitions, is largely responsible for the restrictions introduced into the bill. Nevertheless, even a small step in the right direction is a good step, and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried deserves credit for spending 18 years fighting for the MMJ bill he first introduced back when Michael Jordan only had four championship rings.

The Fairness and Equity Act, meanwhile, is a piece of proposed legislation meant to reform the decriminalization loopholes. In the early 1970s, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller introduced harsh mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenses, which included first-time non-violent cannabis offenders serving prison time. By 1977, the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) had successfully led the push to decriminalize small amounts of possession, but legislators added an unfortunate caveat: Cannabis held in plain view remained a criminal offense. In the 1990s, Mayor Rudy Giuliani strategized that police officers could order people to empty their pockets, which put the cannabis in plain sight and allowed for criminal prosecutions. Cannabis-related arrests increased 25-fold under Mayor Giuliani, and succeeding Mayor Michael Bloomberg got that figure above 40-fold (compared to pre-Giuliani rates) with stop-and-frisk policing that overwhelmingly targeted African-American and Latino residents. The Fairness and Equity Act would close the loophole and address other shortcomings, but its potential passage is far from imminent.

Still, the change in city leadership has resulted in declining cannabis arrest rates. New policies established by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Commissioner William Bratton in November 2014 said “[police] officers will issue a summons instead of effecting an arrest” for most cases in which a person possesses no more than 25 grams of cannabis. According to Newsweek, cannabis-related misdemeanor arrests were significantly lower in the first quarter of 2015 (2,960 arrests) compared to the same three-month period in 2014 (7,110), though racial disparities still exist. African-Americans and Latinos made up 89 percent of the arrests, while white residents made up less than eight percent.

With so much effort for such minor gains, it begs the question, what do New Yorkers want? A Quinnipiac University Poll (QUP) released in early 2014 found that 88% supported medical marijuana and 57% recreational. For medical at least, not even Santa Claus gets support numbers that high. Maurice Carroll, assistant director of QUP, summarized the findings as follows: “Medical marijuana in New York… is a no-brainer.”

Unfortunately, New York lacks a ballot-initiative option that would allow Empire State residents to legalize recreational cannabis or expand the MMJ bill for more effective and available treatment. Still, several legislators continue to push hard for reform.

Photo credit: Unsplash.

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