What Legal Weed Means for New York Right Now

Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Marijuana’s legalization in New York brings some very immediate changes to the city (you can now smoke weed on the sidewalk without fear of intrusion by police) and some less visible — but indisputably dramatic — effects. I spoke with Grub Street’s Rachel Sugar, who has written about the law, to sort out its various provisions.

Ben: So … weed is legal in New York now! It feels like there have been so many false starts leading up to this moment that it’s almost anticlimactic, but nevertheless — it’s a big deal. I think some people may be confused as to how much of this law is effective immediately and how much is a roadmap of provisions that are yet to come. In your view, what is the most important difference between the law 72 hours ago and the law now?

Rachel: Well, one of the big things is that records of people who have marijuana-related convictions for things that are now legal will be expunged! And that process will happen automatically — people shouldn’t have to jump through any hoops there, it’ll just happen (though it will take some time). The other big thing is the very obvious one, which is … as of yesterday, it’s legal to smoke pot! (Anywhere you can smoke tobacco.)

Ben: So, just like on the sidewalk, right? Not that this was an uncommon occurrence before …

Rachel: That’s very true. But yes! There are some limitations — you can’t be within 100 feet of a school, for example. And this is all 21-plus, too, like alcohol.

Ben: The weed dispensaries that are common in other states that have legalized the drug are a ways down the line, as various issues around regulation are hammered out. But do you have any sense as to how New York’s law compares to its predecessors? With its focus on racial equity, the expunging of past criminal records, and more, some politicians were talking it up as a model for the rest of the country, but I can’t tell if that’s just the kind of thing politicians say.

Rachel: One thing that — as I understand it — is notable about the New York law is that it tries to address the fact that you can say you want to prioritize licenses for minority-owned business, or people from over-policed communities, or people who have marijuana-related convictions, but you also have to help them access the capital to actually build these businesses. So one thing the NY legislation has baked in is these “equity programs” — grants, loans, incubators, stuff like that, which address that challenge.

Ben: There is a thriving market of illicit marijuana sales in New York (immortalized by the HBO show High Maintenance), as there are many places. Do you have any sense of how legalization will immediately affect our fair city’s hard-working weed deliverers?

Rachel: I’m also very curious! It seems like it will depend on how pricing works, to some extent, and how convenient it is, how legal weed delivery works (legally licensed delivery will be another part of this, eventually, but maybe not this year) — there are a lot of variables. In states where it’s legal and easy to get, it seems like it’s certainly hurt the underground market, but the law is also written so there’s the opportunity for at least some current weed dealers to go legal.

Ben: Did you get a sense of why this suddenly came together after years of those aforementioned false starts? Governor Cuomo was, not that long ago, an opponent of legal weed. He’d been promising to get it done for a while, but do you think the timing had anything to do with the fact that he’s embroiled in scandal right now and could use some concrete accomplishments to point to at this precarious moment?

Rachel: I mean … it is hard not to think that. I am not Cuomo, obviously, but if I were Cuomo, and I were engulfed in a sexual harassment scandal and also a nursing-home scandal, and leaders of my own party were calling for my resignation, I might … you know, be inclined to do something that would make people like me.

Ben: Do you get the sense that weed legalization might open the door to more leniency toward other, harder drugs? Oregon decriminalized cocaine and heroin possession last year, and they’re an outlier there. And undoubtedly it would take New York a long time to join its ranks, but has anyone you’ve spoken to mentioned that as a direction in which all this could possibly head?

Rachel: I’ve been so focused on like, how this one law is going to work logistically (“so if a pastry chef wants to sell weed cake pops …”) that I’ve been sort of tunnel vision. But we’ve seen a small handful of cities (plus Oregon) decriminalize mushrooms, and there’s been some push for that in New York. If there were going to be a next thing, that would be my guess.

Janelle B. Smith

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