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How would legal weed change New York?

With recreational marijuana on the horizon, how could New Yorkers expect the culture to change?

The push for cannabis regulation and prohibition began in the early 1900s, and really took off in the 1930s.

Nick Robertson, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Rochester Institute of Technology, said this was due in large part to propaganda like the film “Reefer Madness.”

"If you smoke marijuana, you were gonna go crazy," he said. "You were going to do horrible things, it would destroy your life, and ever since then, there’s been a stigma attached."

A lot has changed since then. More Americans are using, and open about using, marijuana. A 2017 study reported that as many as one in seven adults in the U.S. used marijuana in the last year.

Steve VanDeWalle is with Roc NORML, an advocacy group in support of legalization.

"The more people that we have rally behind us and the more people that we can vocalize behind us in this industry," he said, "we can get what we want."


VanDeWalle said it’s past time for a cultural shift in how we in New York view marijuana consumption.

"There’s a lot of cannabis users, there’s a lot of people that use but are afraid to come out of the cannabis closet. Come out of the closet, be loud, be proud, because it’s coming."

In 10 U.S. states, as well as Washington, D.C., it’s already come. In those states where cannabis is legal, adults can walk into licensed dispensaries – sleek, organized shops with helpful attendants, where you can buy marijuana to smoke, eat, vape, or even take in capsule form.

Not everyone is comfortable with the legalization movement, though. Earlier this year, sheriffs across New York spoke out against it, citing public safety concerns.

Oneida County Sheriff Rob Maciol, president of the New York State Sheriffs’ Association, said in a press conference, "People will die as a result of people making the destructive decision to use marijuana and operate a motor vehicle."

Despite those concerns, more than half of Americans are in favor of legalization, and it seems like New York state will soon pass its own legal weed policies. But when it comes to enforcement and criminal justice, legalization might not play out equally for everyone.

Robertson said marijuana prohibition has roots in racism –negative stereotypes about Mexican farmworkers and African Americans were used to fuel efforts to ban the drug. Even now, he said, in states with legal weed, people of color are at a higher risk of ticketing and arrests for violations related to marijuana.

"It’s still disproportionately black people who are arrested for marijuana in these states that have legalized it for recreational use,” he said. “Just because it’s legal for recreational use doesn’t mean you can just do it wherever you want to do it."

Advocates like those with Roc NORML are pushing for equitable legalization – meaning at least some part of the legalization effort will help communities disproportionately affected by prohibition.

A lot of the hangups in New York’s legalization plan come down to deciding how to do that – how to deal with people in jail on possession charges, how to distribute the business opportunities equally between economically depressed communities and those with privilege, and, of course, how to spend the tax revenue.

Veronica Volk is a senior editor and producer for WXXI News.
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