Ten states have enacted recreational marijuana laws and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is swiftly moving in the same direction.
Interested in examining the impact of the proposal, the Scarsdale Task Force on Drugs and Alcohol invited Luke Niforatos, chief of staff at Smart Approaches to Marijuana — an Alexandria, Virginia-based nonprofit that seeks to discuss practical changes in marijuana policy — to talk about his work and experiences related to marijuana legalization.
To make an educated decision, Niforatos said New Yorkers can learn a lot from states that have already legalized marijuana.
Niforatos, who was born in Chicago but raised in Denver, said there are some common narratives that make it seem as though the legalization issue is black and white.
But marijuana policy is “very complicated,” he said. “There are many viewpoints on it and … thousands of components to it.”
For example, he said, polls will ask citizens if they are in favor of the legalization of marijuana, and although most polls show the majority of respondents are in favor of legalization, there are several factors that aren’t considered.
One New York State poll showed 63 percent favored legalization, for example, but Niforatos’ organization posed several more questions, including whether people were in favor of decriminalizing marijuana, allowing recreational use or limiting use to medicinal purposes. In that expanded poll, the number of New Yorkers in favor of legalized recreational use of marijuana dropped to 40 percent.
In addition, Niforatos said, “Decriminalization doesn’t equate to legalization. People are more interested in making sure people don’t go to jail [for marijuana use].”
Colorado legalized marijuana about five years ago, with the expectation that selling it would eliminate the black market and legalizing it would help solve Colorado’s debt revenues.
But there’s a harsh reality.
In most cases, the cost vastly outweighs the revenue — for every $1 a state gains in revenue, it will cost $4.50 to enforce regulation, according to Niforatos.
In addition, black market activity can be expected to increase, as it has in Colorado, which currently has the largest black market in the country, Niforatos said. California is expected to surpass Colorado on that measure because of its larger population. In Oregon alone, he said, only 18 to 30 percent of marijuana sales is legal, which means the rest of the marijuana that’s distributed is coming from people growing it illegally in their own houses.
Niforatos also said international cartels are using Colorado as a center for operations where they buy houses, gut them and set up space to grow marijuana.
He discussed the ramifications of how legalization impacts social justice.
“In Colorado, the rate of black arrests for marijuana is two times that of white arrests,” Niforatos said. “Although marijuana is technically legal, there are a lot of restrictions and regulations that are still enforced.”
And, he said, marijuana businesses in Denver are concentrated in neighborhoods of color.
That leads to the next and perhaps most widespread issue: marketing.
“It’s a for-profit business that’s following a playbook that was set up by big tobacco industries,” Niforatos said.
Altria, one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of tobacco and cigarettes, invested $1.8 billion in Canadian cannabis company Cronos.
It took nearly a century for groups to prove the dangers of smoking cigarettes, but this is a whole new world.
And the marketing goes beyond the big tobacco companies and into alcohol companies. According to news reports, the maker of Corona beer is spending $4 billion to boost its stake in the cannabis company Canopy Growth.
Today, marijuana is popular in several forms, including as edibles or as oils that can be used in vape or Juul pens. In an effort to thwart use among local youths, the Scarsdale Board of Trustees Dec. 11 sent to the planning board an amendment restricting vape products from being sold within 1,000 feet of schools or places of worship.
In states that have legalized marijuana, Niforatos said, kids 12 and up are using at an increased rate. Colorful and fun marketing techniques — such as “Pot-Tarts,” infused drinks and gummy candies — are making kids and teenagers a prime target.
“This is the new marijuana industry,” Niforatos said, adding, “It’s become significantly more potent since the 1960s.”
And, because having marijuana with a much higher THC content is still new, scientists and researchers don’t yet know the long-term effects on the brain.
Niforatos said marijuana sales outlets can be found anywhere in towns that haven’t yet banned it, which has an effect on youth. In Colorado, one in four 12th-graders said they would try marijuana or increase its use, and there has been an increase in people driving under the influence of marijuana. In addition, Colorado has a higher incidence of people being brought in as employees from out of state because workers in the state fail drug tests.
With New York looking to legalize marijuana, Executive Director of Scarsdale Edgemont Family Counseling Service Jay Genova said the drug and alcohol task force is bracing for the change.
“That is of tremendous concern to us,” he said. “There will be an impact on youth, an impact on traffic safety and a lack of impact on crime and incarceration rates. The amount of products that will flood the market is concerning to me. The task force board will have to meet and consider its strategy.”
While strategies to get out information and education to Scarsdale youths will have to evolve, Genova is confident the task force’s mission will remain the same, and hopes local legislators will pay close attention to the implications of legalization.
Niforatos also encouraged conversations to focus on education and awareness for those who use marijuana. “People [who use it] shouldn’t get a record, they should get more education,” he said.