Failure to legalize weed is blessing in disguise for New York – Crain’s New York Business

Last week state legislators admitted defeat in their efforts to legalize recreational cannabis this year. The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act is dead for now, and this is a victory for New Yorkers of all political stripes, but most of all for progressives. Yes, progressives—who led the push for legalization.

That’s because no matter how we might have allocated tax revenue from marijuana, or incentivized people of color to become cannabusiness entrepreneurs—side issues which vexed legislators for months—legal cannabis in our state would have damaged the cause of social justice.

The real social injustice of legalizing weed arises from how the explosive growth of the cannabis industry enables it to escape government regulation in states with legal weed, while rectifying the harms of the War on Drugs is relegated to the back burner.

Supporters of the New York legalization bill focused on why legal weed would have been a massive boon for the state’s economy. But obsessing over the millions of dollars that legal weed might inject into the state’s balance sheet misses the point. Huge revenues have given the cannabis industry enormous political power to warp regulations.

Take Colorado, where I spent two years filming a documentary, “Pot Luck: The Altered State of Colorado.” Sales of more than $6 billion in that state since legalization transformed neighborhood mom-and-pop dealers into slick corporate tycoons. Ordinary citizens sought to institute a cap of 16% potency on THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, as THC levels had skyrocketed from 3.6% in the 1990s to around 20% in Colorado. The industry fueled the jump in potency despite the higher risks that the vastly increased potency may pose to mental health.

In 2016 the industry rallied and deployed its wealth to defeat this proposed sensible regulation. In the years since, the cannabis lobby has grown in Colorado and around the country, and cannabis regulations keep sunsetting. In Colorado, cannabis is minting millionaires left and right, and they are spending their money on fighting regulations and growing the state’s income inequality.

Is that the future we want for New York? Make no mistake, legalization is a movement predicated on profit rather than social justice. Think about the marginalized people whom legalization advocates conveniently forget as they prioritize dollar signs.

You need only look to the people of color in Colorado who are caught smoking marijuana in federal Section 8 housing—something that is legal under state but not federal law—and forever lose their access to that housing. Or consider the vast overrepresentation of unpopular pot dispensaries in communities of color in Denver, which those communities failed to staunch because they lack political clout. Meanwhile, there are indications that cannabis-related homelessness may be rising rapidly.

There has been next to no movement in Colorado to expunge convictions for marijuana-related offenses or pay reparations to people of color victimized by the War on Drugs. It’s easy for cannabis entrepreneurs to pay for million-square foot production facilities, but much harder to pony up for a more equal and just society.

I applaud the black lawmakers across New York who stood up against railroading legalization through. Legalizing cannabis would have allowed the unregulated pursuit of profit to create a new cadre of victims. We should not let our state become collateral damage like Colorado was in the headlong rush to legalize.

Jane Wells is an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker whose work has explored sex trafficking, genocide and the treatment of indigenous Americans.