While New York State seems likely to go the way of nine states and the District of Columbia in legalizing marijuana for recreational use, plenty of deliberation is happening first. Last night was Brooklyn’s turn to sound off about how legal marijuana should be controlled—and who should profit from it.
Last month, shortly after the publication of a multi-agency study that concluded the “positive effects” of marijuana legalization in New York “outweigh the potential negative impacts,” Governor Cuomo pieced together a workgroup tasked with drafting legislation for a regulated, adult-use marijuana program. One of their initial steps is to hold 17 “listening sessions” across the state, giving local politicians and the public a chance to offer their input. One of those listening sessions took place last night at LIU Brooklyn, where about 200 attendees packed into the campus’s Kumble Theater.
The state’s study estimated that if recreational marijuana were to be legalized, nearly 1.3 million New Yorkers might purchase pot during the program’s first year, generating up to $678 million in tax revenue, depending on the pricing and taxation rate. (New York has legalized medical marijuana under relatively strict conditions; Brooklyn’s first dispensary is expected to open later this year.)
The prospect of taking the next step, legalizing recreational use, raises many questions about how staunchly regulated the program will be, including factors like the potency of the pot. Thus, the meeting drew a diverse cross-section of entrepreneurs, activists, and recreational users.
Though the moderator announced ground rules limiting microphone time to two minutes and a ban on cheering and jeering, they weren’t always observed. The roughly 50 speakers ranged from the thoughtful and precise to the spacey and bizarre—and not everyone who spoke was pro-pot. But a series of oft-repeated points emerged over the two-hour gathering—a few with significant business implications. Here are four of them:
1.) Minimize regulations
Many of the speakers showed concern that future legislation might serve only the interests of the state and not necessarily the individual smoker. If the government has complete control over the cannabis supply—its price, taxation, potency—that could mean that many users will go underserved. The black market wouldn’t go away, arrests will still be made, and the people who utilize marijuana for a wide range of medical purposes will continue to suffer if basic access isn’t granted, some speakers asserted.
A man who identified himself as “Diesel L.” said he moved from Brooklyn, where he was raised, to Washington, D.C., because there “you are able to grow: one person, six plants.” He said growing marijuana is a “God-given right,” a sentiment expressed by a few others, who wondered if the state’s legislation will be progressive enough to allow private production.
Diesel L. and others also observed that the marijuana laws might need enough nuance to include pot-related products like THC vape oils and edibles, for example, and to clearly discriminate between criminal and legal use. However, one woman suggested that the laws be so general that they span no longer than two pages, while another woman said that the laws must be strong enough so that localities don’t have the power to supersede them.
2.) Provide business opportunities for everyone
So legalized marijuana legislation has gone through and you want to open a store. What are the startup costs? The application fees? The taxes? Where does the supply come from?
As to be expected, most of the attendees who spoke wish that the state would keep fees low, and hope that the new industry doesn’t become strictly a billionaire’s club.
State Assembly Member Walter T. Mosley, who represents Brooklyn’s District 57, including several neighborhoods in north-central Brooklyn, spoke on this topic at the meeting’s outset. “As we move from a vertical to a more horizontal economic structure of this industry,” he said, “creating more diversity, more opportunities for people of color and for women” will be an important step.
Michael Zaytsev, who founded High NY, a pro-cannabis community, said that there must “especially [be] a consideration of how we’re going to transition people from the underground cannabis economy, who are making their living there, into the regulated economy.”
“Those people shouldn’t be wiped out,” he continued, “because the ‘Big Pharmas’ and ‘Big Alcohols’ of the world want a piece of the cannabis dollars.”
In April, Business Insider reported that “pharmaceutical giants” are already researching cannabis-based drugs, in spite of federal laws still banning the plant. The Molson Coors Brewing Co. recently announced that they’re developing “non-alcoholic, cannabis-infused beverages for the Canadian market following legalization,” and the Coca-Cola Co. is also eyeing the cannabis drinks market as their soda sales slow.
“We’re gonna have ‘Coors Weed,’ they’re gonna take over, the money’s gonna be there,” said a man who did not identify himself by name, but claims to have opened a growing and recreational cannabis business in California. “We want to at least carve out a little bit of a niche for high-quality marijuana. … Make sure you’re getting a few high-quality [sellers] so when we go to the stores we have an option that’s not gonna be ‘Coors Light.’”
Jay Hibbard, VP of government relations for the Distilled Spirits Council, a national trade association, said that the taxation and regulation of marijuana should be “comparable” to that of distilled spirits. Hibbard added that the Council suggests a “21-year-old purchase and use requirement,” like that of alcohol, and “a standard measurement of marijuana-induced impairment” similar to that of the .08% blood-alcohol level on the books in the state’s drunk-driving laws. He added that there should be roadside impairment tests for drivers, among other regulations.
By the end of Hibbard’s remarks, boos rained down on him, with some shouting that alcohol is “poison” and “kills people,” which led to a re-reading of the ground rules by the moderator.
3.) Release those incarcerated for pot-related offenses
Many at the meeting said that if the legalization of adult, recreational-use marijuana is pushed through, then those who have been incarcerated for pot-related offenses must be released.
“When we’re talking about regulation we [must] talk about decriminalization,” Assembly Member Mosley said before posing the question: “How do we seal the records of those who have been impacted by their activities in this industry when it was criminalized?”
A man identifying himself as a lifelong New York resident said the release of incarcerated people and the sealing of their records “should not be linked to the passage of a regulation and taxation scheme, they should just be done outright.” Another suggested there be “reparations” for those previously incarcerated for breaking laws banning marijuana once the new legislation passes.
Catherine Gonzalez, an attorney with Brooklyn Defenders Services, an organization that provides legal representation to those who cannot afford it, said in her three years of working for the group she has represented only one white person who was arrested for a marijuana offense—the rest have been people of color.
Gonzalez said the state’s new legislation must re-invest marijuana tax revenue into “communities that have been the most harmed under prohibition,” while Assembly Member Mosley himself also offered: “How are some of these revenues going to be re-invested in some of the communities that have been impacted [by pot-related arrests] the most?”
4.) Keep employers from testing their workers for marijuana
A couple of speakers also said that if decriminalization goes through, there should be laws in place keeping employers from firing workers for smoking pot.
A woman who identified herself as a Brooklynite said, “I’m a mom of two teenaged boys—I guess you can call me a soccer mom.” She said that she had just come from dropping them off at their practice sessions, and added: “I’m gonna go home and make some dinner and I’m gonna smoke some pot tonight,” at which the crowd applauded.
“There are a lot of people like me, quietly at home smoking, and not out advocating for a change in laws in this state,” she continued. “I think if we thought about … restricting employers from testing for cannabis, that more people like me would come out and be open” about their pot use and the push for looser laws.
“Let’s be honest, we need more friends and less enemies.”
The governor’s workgroup will hold a listening session tonight in Staten Island before working their way through Long Island and Upstate, with their last meeting scheduled for Oct. 17, in Westchester County.