At the end of last year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he wants to legalize marijuana in the state in 2019. (If you are stoned right now, that’s this year.) So the next time the ball drops in Times Square, you could be happily and lawfully buzzed as 3,000 pounds of shiny, shiny, supertrippy confetti falls from the sky. At that point, New York would become the 10th state to legalize recreational weed. (Many more states, including New York, have passed laws in support of legalizing medical marijuana.) There’s still a long way to go before that happens, but in order to prep you for the greening of NYC, we spoke with journalist Alex Halperin, who has been covering the pot industry for years and cohosts a podcast and writes a newsletter on the legalizing movement’s fast-changing issues. Halperin lives in Los Angeles now, so this exchange could not happen as pungently as perhaps it should have. But if Cuomo gets his way—maybe next time!
What Should We Do: When will marijuana be legalized in NYC?
Alex Halperin: Historically, neither Governor Cuomo nor New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has been on the front lines among Democratic politicians in calling for legalization. But that changed in December when Cuomo said he’s making recreational legalization a legislative priority for 2019. De Blasio is now also on board.
Legalization became much more likely on Election Day when Democrats gained control of the New York State Senate (and held the State House). If New York legalizes possessing, then marijuana for personal consumption could be legal soon after. But from legalization it typically takes states at least six months, and usually longer, to write the rules governing the industry and award business licenses to growers and retailers.
WSWD: What will be the legal age to purchase weed?
Halperin: In most, if not all, legal states, 21 is the buying ages for adults. In some cases, younger people can access marijuana for medical use.
WSWD: What impact do you foresee legalization having on NYC’s economy?
Halperin: The cannabis industry can be expected to generate taxes and create jobs. So far in the legal states, the taxes have not always lived up to voter and politician expectations, in part because when the taxes on legal pot get too high, consumers can often still switch back to the untaxed illegal or gray market.
In 2017, Colorado, which has 5.6 million people, made more than $247 million in pot taxes and license fees. Very roughly by population, that would be the equivalent of New York City generating $350 million. While Colorado’s bounty may sound impressive, it accounted for less than 1 percent of the state budget.
WSWD: And the impact on the city more broadly?
Halperin: It’s hard to say. Those who oppose cannabis often warn it will lead to upticks in youth use and stoned driving incidents. So far the data doesn’t really support these charges, but it is likely that adults will increase their usage.
Mayor De Blasio has said he hopes to see the industry benefit minority communities most victimized by aggressive drug policing and sentencing requirements.
WSWD: Who is poised to benefit the most from legalization? Large corporations? Small entrepreneurs? Specific examples?
Halperin: Much depends on how New York law is structured. There are perhaps a dozen well-capitalized, multistate cannabis companies that will be well prepared to apply for New York licenses.
L.A.-based retailer MedMen has already opened a dispensary on Fifth Avenue, where it sells a limited range of medical cannabis products allowed under state law. New York City–based Acreage Holdings operates growers, manufacturers, and dispensaries in multiple states. Former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, an adamant legalization opponent while in office, is on Acreage’s board of directors. There are ways to structure laws to support small entrepreneurs, for example, by creating micro licenses, but it’s not yet clear what New York’s laws will be.
Mayor De Blasio has said he hopes to see the industry benefit minority communities most victimized by aggressive drug policing and sentencing requirements. But other cities, particularly in California, have expressed similar goals without much success. So far, governments have struggled to help small-scale entrepreneurs compete with experienced, well-capitalized firms.
WSWD: Does this mean there will no longer be such a thing as pot-related criminal charges in NYC?
Halperin: NYC has already reduced the kinds of incidents that can result in nonviolent marijuana arrests. After legalization, that’s likely to fall further, though there will still likely be arrests for those operating outside the regulated system. As legalization spreads and becomes normalized, it’s likely that the incentive to participate in the illegal marijuana trade will eventually dissipate and pot crimes will become rarer, roughly how today bootlegging liquor isn’t seen as a lucrative hustle.
WSWD: And what about customers and consumers? How will their lives change?
Halperin: The marijuana industry is looking beyond its core demographic of males under 35 to promote the drug as a product appropriate for all kinds of adults, often at all times during the day. While some brands present themselves as an alternative to happy-hour cocktails, others present themselves as “wellness” products that can be consumed all day every day.
WSWD: Will NYC’s streets constantly smell like marijuana? More than they already do?