Legal Weed in NYC?


By Tanya Silverman

NYC comptroller and current mayoral candidate John Liu at the podium in 2008. Photo by Thomas Good.

New York City comptroller John Liu came up with a proposal to generate money for the city: legalizing marijuana.

“Prohibition is not working,“ Liu tells BTR. “We have 900,000 New Yorkers using it on a regular basis, [and] a $1.65 billion-dollar market here in New York City.“

Liu, also a Democratic mayoral candidate, furthers his claim by saying that tax money generated from hypothetically legalized marijuana would reduce tuition at CUNY schools (NYC public colleges), as well as dissociate users from being considered criminals.

“You have young people who get this on their records and can’t get jobs later on,“ he says. “It’s just terrible.“
Liu adds that he considers marijuana arrests to be a “huge waste of police resources” in which “communities of color suffer from the enforcement much more than necessarily so,” adding that ”45 percent of marijuana users are blacks or hispanics, yet blacks and hispanics make up 86 percent of the arrests.”

In the written proposal, “Regulating and Taxing Marijuana – The Fiscal Aspect on NYC” the comptroller suggests a system where marijuana would be legalized, taxed and heavily regulated in which only licensed establishments could sell it. It would be forbidden to people under 21 and illegal to smoke in public.

This idea is apparently not for personal reasons, as Liu claims that he has never smoked the substance.

So what initially prompted the NYC comptroller to feel so strongly about legalizing marijuana?

“Earlier in the year when the legislature was considering legalizing medical marijuana, personal use was also being discussed. So, I felt it was an important issue for New York, and that’s why we commenced a study into the fiscal impact,“ says Liu.

He explains that the studies from the comptroller’s office take “several months to complete,” so this particular marijuana research project was just finished last week.

“I announced the results and came out in support of legalization, which is actually surprising to me, because at the beginning of this year, I was very ambivalent about even medical marijuana — but the facts are hard to refute,“ explains Liu.

In the comptroller’s proposal, the authors estimate the “illicit and untaxed” current “retail marijuana market” generates $1.65 billion annually, whereas their foreseen legalized, regulated and taxed marijuana trade would expand the market to $1.7 billion, with $400 million of revenue for the city through their hypothetical tax system.

Charles Smith, a New York City Criminal Defense Attorney, is wary of these figures.

“It’s difficult to say whether or not their estimates are correct. It’s an illegal market. There’s no way that they’re [dealers] going turn over their money records,“ says Smith. Therefore, “these estimators are not going to be able to audit those and figure out an exact number.”

Another area that is questionable, according to Smith, is the practicality of legalizing it in New York City only, as he points out that the city is unable to “pass a law that goes against the state constitution or state laws.”

Currently, marijuana is decriminalized in New York State – small amounts are considered a violation subject to fine, rather than a crime. It’s still illegal, and such a proposal could potentially be shut down by Albany. State Senator Liz Krueger proposed a similar bill to the state, but there is presently no significant momentum to legalize marijuana.

However, Smith notes that “the proposals by Comptroller Liu and Senator Krueger are very general and do not outline specifics for the production and distribution of cannabis.”

Whatever the realistic complications, Liu remains hopeful, adding that there is a “pretty favorable reception from students and faculty alike“ in the CUNY system.