Amidst Coronavirus Crisis, Marijuana Legalization Should not be a Priority

A legislative column by Assemblyman Robert Smullen

If there is one public health issue that has garnered overwhelming and bi-partisan support over the years, it is that smoking is bad for you. The surgeon general even warns you about it on every pack of cigarettes. And it now appears vaping is not good for you either, especially for young, impressionable people who are the target of aggressive marketing campaigns that promote innocent sounding “flavors.”

Now, in the midst of the public health crisis over the coronavirus, the governor’s budget proposal maintains that the legalization of marijuana is a major policy priority. Since when did encouraging more people to smoke become a major budget priority? And this needs to be passed in a real health crisis?

On what many political insiders call “Planet Albany,” this would normally mean that marijuana legalization – a serious social policy and public health issue – would get jammed into the state budget at the last minute as we approach the April 1 deadline. In light of the coronavirus outbreak, this is not a “priority” that should get passed in middle of the night with almost no debate and little input from the general public.

We have all seen that bad lawmaking movie before and, more often than not, it does not end well. The bail reform law is the most recent example. This is certainly not the time for the Majority politicians who control the Legislature to follow the familiar and demoralizing “let’s throw everything we can into the budget and pick up the pieces later” strategy.

Potential health impacts alone should merit a much more vigorous examination and discussion of this issue. Some studies in Europe have shown that the higher potency pot that is now readily available carries potentially severe health risks, with regular users having a greater chance of developing psychosis. With one third of New Yorkers on state-supported Medicaid, is this a fiscal and medical liability we want to assume?

Adverse impacts are not limited only to those who actually smoke marijuana. A report by the Automobile Association of America (AAA) found that the number of fatal car accidents in Washington State involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana doubled after legal sales were implemented. The AAA’s study also found about 20% of drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2017 tested positive for marijuana.

The governor has proposed establishing an Office of Cannabis Management to regulate and oversee the sale of marijuana in New York. The legislation also imposes various taxes on cultivation and distribution. Given New York’s history of taxing everything to the hilt, it’s safe to assume the state’s legal marijuana will be some of the most expensive in the country. If that happens, many consumers will purchase pot in neighboring states if it is cheaper. Even worse, high taxes will drive a black market for tax-free marijuana.

In the face of a $6.1 billion budget gap, it’s no surprise that the Majority politicians in Albany are frantically searching for revenue in the form of new taxes and fees. However, the estimates show marijuana legalization will have little impact, with only a $20 million proposed increase in state revenue for the coming fiscal year.

And what about the actual cost of legalization? A Colorado study found that for every dollar in revenue generated by sales, the state is spending approximately $4.50 to mitigate the social costs associated with legal marijuana. So, is legal marijuana really a “budget priority” or just a fiscal pipe dream?

A big part of the job of an effective Legislature is holding hearings, gathering facts and information and building a public record before passing legislation. Some decisions on important issues may need to be put directly to the voters. Unfortunately, just like bail reform, we are not following that process with marijuana legalization.

I support medical marijuana and understand the various sides of this issue. But no matter where you stand, history has shown us that more information is better when dealing with complex public policy issues. So, given the potential long-term health impacts and other societal costs, attempting to legalize marijuana in the budget during the coronavirus pandemic would be a colossal misplaced “priority.” The public deserves better.

Our immediate priority should be passing a budget extender to keep the government running while ensuring the state has the necessary resources to address the coronavirus crisis. The potential legalization of marijuana and other unrelated policy issues should be legislated outside of the state budget when they can receive full and proper consideration.