With a spirited debate going on all around our state and across the nation about the legalization of marijuana, I thought it would be a good opportunity to do a series of articles on the topic, analyzing the main points and counterpoints. At the end of the series, I will give you my thoughts on the issue, but before that, it’s important to look at both sides of the issue critically and objectively. As with any topic involving this amount of money, separating the “spin” from the “reality” is not always easy.
Throughout this series I’m going to be discussing legalization in terms of recreational as opposed to purely medicinal use. Some states have opted for medical legalization only as a politically expedient compromise on the way to full recreational use (e.g., California). In New York, if legalization happens, it will be on the recreational side (which obviously includes medical use as well) so let’s just acknowledge it and address it accordingly without any double talk.
In this column we’ll deal with the proposed benefits and opportunities that are often used to champion the legalization of marijuana and related products. To be fair, there are a lot of potential opportunities for doing some real good in what many anticipate will be a massive new industry (hundreds of billions of dollars every year, according to some).
Medical Uses. While the scientific studies are still being performed on a lot of aspects of medical use of both the psychoactive part of marijuana (called THC – the part that gets you high) and the non-psychoactive part (called CBD or hemp oil – which doesn’t), the testimonials coming from users themselves are really powerful. They report that using marijuana provides relief in ways that they cannot achieve with other medicines or alternatively medicines without the harmful side effects. Particularly among veterans and sufferers of chronic pain, the stories are too consistent and positive to ignore because the scientists has not yet caught up.
Users and medical professionals report marijuana helps with a whole host of medical ailments, including Chrohn’s disease, migraines, cancer, anxiety, depression, inflammation, insomnia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), psoriasis, seizures, nausea, loss of appetite, and high blood sugar. Contrary to popular myth, the fastest growing demographic of users in states that have legalized marijuana are seniors, coping with the effects of aging and, increasingly, turning to some form of marijuana with success. Many people who have become dependent on opioid prescriptions to manage pain (a growing and disturbing problem itself) are finding marijuana provides as effective a treatment for their pain without the devastating addiction consequences of opioids. We would be shortsighted to discount the growing evidence of real medical benefits associated with marijuana use.
Governmental Regulation Benefits. Creating a regulated taxed industry in place of an unregulated untaxed black market presents a number of real benefits and opportunities for everyone. We also often overlooked the sheer amount of wasted resources expended in enforcing, prosecuting, and jailing small-time drug offenders, which invariably find more and harsher sentences being imposed on minorities. By eliminating this black market, our government resources can be re-deployed to addressing more pressing issues of violent crimes, particularly spousal abuse, gang activity and gun violence to name a few.
Then of course there’s the new tax revenue and the dizzying array of projects that it can fund. From schools to roads to hospitals to research, there’s no end to how people want to spend the marijuana tax money. Governor Cuomo and Mayor diBlasio already have a bunch of it ear-marked for the MTA, and if they have their way, will hopefully fix the bridges in Mount Vernon. We can address that idea another time but suffice it to say everybody has their eye on every penny of this new revenue. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t use it on those things, either. But, I think we need to have a serious conversation about priorities first.
One of those priorities needs to be our urban centers that have been hardest hit by the “drug war” in the first place. Part of any legalization effort needs to include the acknowledgment that societal “acceptance” of marijuana use has not come without real cost to urban youth who have been the targets of overzealous prosecutors and law enforcement personnel for decades. Our inner cities have been allowed to fall into complete disrepair as generations of kids have been removed from their homes and made mostly unemployable by minor drug convictions. We can use the new regulations and tax revenue to right some of those wrongs by requiring a substantial portion of that revenue be invested into the redevelopment of our urban centers, workforce training, and even expunging of past minor drug offenses from people’s records. Before we start going crazy with the spending, let’s recognize we have some old debts to pay off first.
Commercial Innovation. Cannabis is going to be big business. Giants from Big Beer (Coors, Anheuser-Busch), Big Tobacco (Altria, R.J. Reynolds), and Big Pharma (Novartis, Pfizer) are all poised with billions in investable resources to capitalize on legalization. A new industry means new jobs, new tax revenue, and new innovation. Some estimate the marijuana industry could be as large as $24 billion by 2025, with as many as 300,000 new jobs by 2020. Those are staggering figures. Between the use of new technology and new logistics, this product could get to the market faster and far more efficiently than any consumer product in history. While it remains illegal at the federal level, limiting the involvement of FDIC-insured banks, the growth in local banks and financial institutions could very well be a welcome addition to the financial scene. Local banks lend locally, to members of their community. Our inner cities could benefit greatly from that development, too.
Taken together, there are a lot of intriguing positives associated with the legalization debate. We need to be realistic about the changing nature of social acceptance along with the opportunities and benefits that a legal marijuana industry can provide. In the next column, we’ll deal with the many challenges it presents that are not minor challenges. Let’s be open-minded and address them with the same clarity of thought that we embrace the positive aspects. Ultimately, we will each have to decide on which side of this very interesting and controversial issue we land. The momentum of this topic is not subsiding, so it’s important that we begin the conversation internally and among each other. And, it’s important that we do so armed with an honest assessment of both sides.
If you have thoughts or comments about this issue or any other, reach out to me at ADWCMV@gmail.com.