New York on Wednesday legalized marijuana, with the legislature passing a bill and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signing it into law.
Under the law, people 21 and older will be able to grow and use marijuana. The state will also set up a regulated, legal marijuana market, with new tax revenues directed to education, drug treatment and prevention, and communities disproportionately hurt by the war on drugs. And it will automatically expunge people’s criminal records of marijuana offenses that are no longer illegal.
The law came together after years of back-and-forth in the legislature. Cuomo came out in support of legalization in 2018. But the legislation stalled as the governor and lawmakers clashed over the details of legalization, particularly how new tax revenues should be used. A breakthrough came as Cuomo has been mired by scandals over his handling of Covid-19 and sexual harassment allegations against him, and after neighboring New Jersey legalized marijuana.
New York has allowed marijuana use for medical purposes since 2014. But the new law will expand the state’s medical marijuana program, allowing more medical conditions to qualify and let patients smoke or vape the drug.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. But starting with former President Barack Obama’s administration, the federal government has generally allowed states to legalize cannabis with minimal federal interference.
With New York’s law, 15 states and Washington, DC, have now legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, although DC doesn’t allow recreational sales. (South Dakota voters approved a ballot initiative to legalize cannabis in November, but that measure’s future is uncertain as it’s caught up in legal battles.)
Supporters of legalization argue that it eliminates the harms of marijuana prohibition: the hundreds of thousands of arrests around the US, the racial disparities behind those arrests, and the billions of dollars that flow from the black market for illicit marijuana to drug cartels that then use the money for violent operations around the world. All of this, legalization advocates say, will outweigh any of the potential downsides — such as increased cannabis use — that might come with legalization.
Opponents, meanwhile, claim that legalization will create a huge marijuana industry that will market the drug irresponsibly. They point to America’s experiences with the alcohol and tobacco industries in particular, which have built their financial empires in large part on the backs of the heaviest consumers of their products. And they argue ending prohibition could result in far more people using pot, potentially leading to unforeseen negative health consequences.
In New York, legalization supporters have triumphed.
For more on the debate over marijuana legalization, read Vox’s explainer.