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New York’s governor just took another step toward marijuana legalization

Gov. Andrew Cuomo set up a working group to write a marijuana legalization bill.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo attends a health care union rally in New York City.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a rally in February 2018.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) on Thursday took a big step toward legalizing marijuana for recreational use in the state, announcing that he has set up a working group to write a bill implementing recommendations from the state Department of Health to legalize and regulate cannabis.

“As we work to implement the report’s recommendations through legislation, we must thoroughly consider all aspects of a regulated marijuana program, including its impact on public health, criminal justice and State revenue, and mitigate any potential risks associated with it,” Cuomo said in a statement.

Alphonso David, counsel to the governor, will oversee the working group, gathering and implementing feedback from government officials and other stakeholders. Public safety, public health, and economic experts and officials will be on the panel.

Once the group comes up with a proposal, it will be up to the legislature to pass it before Cuomo can sign it into law.

If New York fully legalizes marijuana, it will become the 10th state — and the second most populous, after California — to do so. Medical marijuana is already legal in the state.

This would continue what’s been a watershed year for marijuana legalization, from Canada legalizing pot to California opening the world’s largest cannabis market. Cuomo’s decision is yet another sign that the marijuana legalization movement continues picking up steam — now that the majority of Americans, according to Gallup’s polling, support legalization.

The Health Department’s report came out strongly for legalization

The New York Health Department’s 75-page report ultimately concluded that the pros outweigh the cons for legalization. “Numerous [New York state] agencies and subject matter experts in the fields of public health, mental health, substance use, public safety, transportation, and economics worked in developing this assessment,” the report said. “No insurmountable obstacles to regulation of marijuana were raised.”

The report reached several significant conclusions:

  1. Criminalization “has not curbed marijuana use despite the commitment of significant law enforcement resources.”
  2. New York state’s hundreds of thousands of marijuana-related arrests and prosecutions over the past two decades “have disproportionately affected low-income communities of color” even though these communities aren’t significantly more likely to use pot — backing similar findings from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Sentencing Project.
  3. Legalization would let the state “better control licensing, ensure quality control and consumer protection, and set age and quantity restrictions.”
  4. It would also provide tax revenue to the state, estimated at $248.1 million to $677.7 million in the first year. The extra money could help support various state programs, from education to health care.
  5. Legalization does not appear to, so far, lead to a significant increase in marijuana use in the states that have adopted the policy. But regulators should keep an eye on potential trends, the report said: “A regulated marijuana program should monitor and document patterns of use to evaluate the impact of legalization on use.”
  6. Marijuana may reduce opioid overdose deaths. This finding references earlier research that suggests states with medical marijuana have fewer opioid overdose deaths, although some experts caution that the studies still aren’t very strong and there are more proven evidence-based policy solutions for fighting the opioid epidemic.
  7. There are some risks to marijuana, including addiction, potential mental health problems, and car crashes involving drugs. Many of these risks were documented in a comprehensive report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Cuomo announced the state legalization study in January. He’s been under pressure to support legalization in part due to Cynthia Nixon’s gubernatorial campaign, which has repeatedly attacked Cuomo from the left — including through its support for legalization.

Faced with that pressure, and with the findings from the Health Department, it now looks like Cuomo is ready to take New York in a new direction with marijuana policy.

For more on marijuana legalization, read Vox’s explainer.

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