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Weedwacked: The Politics of Pot

by Ryan Karben

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With the New York Times reporting on stoned seniors forsaking shuffleboard for bong hits, you might think New York’s government is chillin’ too. Polls show that nearly two-thirds of New Yorkers think smoking weed in public should be a violation, not a misdemeanor. 51% of the state’s voters back full legalization of marijuana. Approval numbers for “medical marijuana” are even higher.

But unlike gun control and marriage equality– where lawmakers acted decisively on issues that normally give risk-averse legislators heartburn– the apparent consensus across party, geography and race for more liberal drug laws is stuck in Albany’s legislative rut.

The Republican Leader of the State Senate is worried that looser pot laws could turn New Yorkers into green goblins, with “10 joints in each ear.” The Assembly approved medical marijuana last year for the third time 90 to 50; a clear but not overwhelming majority.

The Governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, who championed reform of the mandatory minimum sentences in the state’s notorious and racist Rockefeller Drug Laws, has been noticeably cool to legal weed, even by doctor’s prescription. He has passionately championed drug sentencing reform.

So, no pending plans for a Joint Conference Committee on pot reform.

It’s not for lack of trying. The Marijuana Policy Project keeps its New York advocacy page up-to-date. The Drug Policy Alliance, instrumental in the Rockefeller Drug Law Reform battle, spent $135,000 on lobbying by two prominent firms– in 2012 alone. Out-of-state companies are lobbying too.

And yet, while Colorado and Washington voters authorized taxed and regulated weed in separate referenda this past November– and New Jersey’s conservative sensation Chris Christie signed a medical marijuana bill in 2010– New York remains no place for The Dude.

New York’s “med mar” discussion has been sidelined by the debate over the New York City Police Department’s controversial “stop and frisk” policy which arrests thousands of black men when they produce small bags of weed in response to police orders to empty their pockets. Concealed marijuana, a non-criminal violation that would never have been charged because the cops did not know the weed was there, becomes pot in public view— a misdemeanor. Arrests and confinement follow– before most criminal charges are tossed.

Blacks are 8 times more likely than whites to be arrested for weed, even though statistics irrefutably demonstrate more whites are toking than blacks. “Stop and frisk” has been rightly tagged as a flawed, racist policy (90% of those stopped are black). It’s also the reason drug law reform is stalled.

The racial argument for drug law reform worked once. George Pataki, seeking to a cast a more moderate image and open the GOP tent, ultimately embraced sentencing reform designed to end racial disparity in drug sentences under the Rockefeller Laws. Andrew Cuomo teamed up with Russell Simmons to press the cause.

Rockefeller reform was a chief legislative priority of the State Legislature’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus. The State’s District Attorneys Association, which resisted reform, was a lonely opponent (causing grief for Nassau DA Kathleen Rice in her unsuccessful 2010 Attorney General campaign). Rockefeller reform passed (twice), but its primary impact was on those who had already been incarcerated for a long time for old drug offenses.

The Rockefeller reform strategy worked because it was about the past–excessive sentences paired with a legacy of racism in past prosecutions. Drug policy efforts now are about the present.

The controversy over “stop and frisk” implicates the current conduct of thousands of beat cops who work the city’s streets but live in the politically influential suburbs. To them (and louder voices like Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly), New York’s legislative debate over marijuana has ceased to be about compassionate care or the discredited war on weed– it’s become a referendum on cop conduct and safe streets.

So while 72% of voters 18-34 believe public puffing should just be a violation, and Republican voters agree 50% to 47%– that question is getting asked in a vacuum. In Albany, it’s become a cops vs. robbers contrast. A dude with 10 joints growing in each ear? Sounds like a menacing intruder–not a retired neighbor watching the movie stoned at home because it keeps the snacking cheaper.

That can be immensely frustrating to medical marijuana champions like Assembly Health Committee Chairman Dick Gottfried and Senator Diane Savino. They know the effective arguments for liberal pot laws suggest regulated marijuana as tool to fight crime, not encourage it. As this television ad for Colorado’s winning Proposition 64 asked voters, do you want revenue from marijuana sales to build schools or go into the “pockets of criminals”?

In early March, New York budget negotiators floated a compromise proposal that would lower pot penalties in New York City-only. The proposal was criminal justice politics, not thoughtful policy. There is no distinguishable public health or safety justification for regulating the same half ounce of pot differently in Brooklyn than in Batavia.

The “compromise” was a response to “stop and frisk” that glossed over the actual public consensus– most New Yorkers just don’t think adults getting buzzed on a little pot is a big deal. And they definitely have ideas about how their communities could spent the estimated millions in new revenue regulated reefer would generate.

New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy must end because it is discriminatory and intrusive whether the person stopped is stoned or stone cold sober. And the state’s marijuana policies should change as a reflection of a social consensus that includes the Golden Ganja Girls profiled by the Times.

But mixing the politics of law enforcement and race with the healthcare and social policy arguments of (medical) marijuana is a bad trip for drug policy reform in Albany.


Ryan Karben is an attorney and public affairs strategist who served as a Rockland County Legislator and State Assemblyman from 1998 through 2006. Ryan blogs on politics and policy at


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