Legalizing marijuana across New York is an overall positive as long as cannabis is regulated as it is in other states, according to a new report from the state Department of Health.
The report looks at health effects, public safety concerns such as incarceration rates, and economic impact of legalizing marijuana.
Marijuana is easily purchased illegally, according to the report, but those buying are at a disadvantage for understanding its potency or safety. The report says that can be helped by regulations and labels, like with alcohol and tobacco.
"Not understanding what may be in a substance when it's illicitly used is really significant as compared to a regulated process in which we know and have confidence in the product," says Johanne Morne, director of the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute.
The report notes that laws against marijuana have not curbed its use, but New York has the highest arrest rate for marijuana — nearly double the national average — and those arrests disproportionally affect communities of color.
Economically, the report says the state could collect between an estimated $248.1 million and $677.7 million in one year from tax revenues and could potentially create thousands of jobs.
Research acknowledged neighboring states Vermont and Massachusetts allow both recreational and medical use, and examples showed out-of-state residents were willing to risk buying legal marijuana if they had easy access and a safe product.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo called in his state budget address for the report, which closes with "further exploration will be required should NYS move toward legalization." It would take an act of the legislature and approval by the governor to be made law.
The state now has a tightly-regulated marijuana program for the terminally ill and the program has been expanded to include other illnesses; most recently, as a substitute for opioid use as announced this week.
Legal experts say there’s still a gray area when it comes to how marijuana use will be regulated, especially when it comes to the workplace.
"I think one of the biggest concerns is just managing the expectations or the lack of knowledge or misconceptions and impressions that come around that because it’s legal. It's going to be a free for all,” said Michelle Lee Flores, an attorney with Akerman LLP.
State-based laws are still in conflict with federal law and, in January, the Justice Department ended the previous administration’s policy of punishing dealers, rather than users.
There are also questions about how law enforcement officers will be trained to distinguish varying levels of impairment.
“That's part of what the uncharted waters are, there is not the same equivalent of a blood alcohol content,” Flores said. “With that, it will be what are the amounts are we going to test. It’s not a simple answer."
"Right now, the typical police agency in a small town might have one officer who is classified as a drug recognition expert,” added Dominic Saraceno, a criminal law attorney. “I think if its legal, officers universally will have to be trained and recognize whether someone is under the influence of marijuana."