In the midst of New York’s heated gubernatorial election, the argument for the legalization of recreational cannabis received a ringing endorsement from the State Department of Health. Released in mid-July, the “Regulated Marijuana Report” states that “It has become less a question of whether to legalize but how to do so responsibly.”
Based on this report, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed a workgroup to draft legislation for regulated recreational marijuana use for the state legislature to consider in 2019. As its surrounding neighbors begin to legalize recreational marijuana, New York is the next big state to make marijuana a major platform issue.
Considering Cuomo’s as well as the New York state legislature’s checkered past on cannabis-related regulations and enforcement, New York voters must wonder if the department’s recommendations are a genuine effort to legalize cannabis, or if these proposals are simply sound-bytes for the governor’s re-election campaign.
As Gov. Cuomo and his Democratic rival, Cynthia Nixon, race towards the primaries, cannabis-concerned voters should consider the state of New York’s past practices on the enforcement of regulations on marijuana-use before casting their ballots on September 13.
CompStat and cannabis
Cuomo’s current stance on reducing the number of nonviolent cannabis users who enter the criminal justice system by expanding access to medical marijuana is a far cry from the enforcement of marijuana laws nearly 30 years ago. Between 1990 and 2002, arrests for possession of marijuana increased 2,461 percent in New York City alone. Nationwide, marijuana arrests increased 113 percent.
The numbers were accurately tracked by the CompStat System, a performance management system created by the New York City Police Department which is still utilized today (and now called CompStat 2.0), as well as many other police departments across the United States.
The CompStat system aims to reduce crime and achieve city-specific police department goals by tracking crime-rates and comparing them with arrest-rates.
CompStat emphasizes information-sharing, responsibility, and accountability by police, and improving effectiveness in enforcing state laws. Some of this information is available to the public and is accessible online; however, some information is withheld to protect ongoing investigations. It was developed by then NYPD Deputy Commissioner Jack Maple.
Utilizing New York City Police Foundation dollars for the purchase of mapping materials, Maple purchased a computer to create a more effective mapping system for tracking crime and arrest-rates, giving police departments a more accurate look at trends in crime.
A policy of stop-and-frisk
Utilizing data from CompStat, police began to increase the practice of stop-and-frisk searches in targeted areas of New York. Stop-and-frisk searches are the practice of police temporarily detaining, questioning, and searching civilians on the street for weapons and contraband.
The vast majority of those citizens stopped between 2002 and 2016 were people of color. In fact, the New York Civil Liberties Union collected data on the stop-and-frisk program during this period and found that more than 50 percent of those detained and searched were black and nearly a third were Latino. Despite the fact that more than 70 percent of those detained by these searches were found innocent of wrongdoing, stop-and-frisk searches continued.
In 2013, a federal judge ultimately determined that the use of the stop-and-frisk search in New York City was discriminatory and unconstitutional. New York City challenged the ruling, but the transition to a new mayor in 2014 meant that the appeal was ultimately dropped. While research from New York’s own CompStat System showed that stop-and-frisk searches had few effects, if any, on the crime rates in New York, it was ultimately a political transition which halted the use of stop-and-frisk searches by the NYPD.
Politics, cannabis, and more politics
Gov. Cuomo’s wavering stance on recreational marijuana use is well documented by PotNetwork News. While he has called for a workgroup to develop proposed bill language for the 2019 legislative session, that workgroup will only convene if New York re-elects Cuomo and if he feels like keeping this particular campaign promise.
Additionally, the department report recommending the regulation of marijuana use is merely that. A recommendation, not a legally-binding document with step-by-step instructions on how to legalize marijuana. Most importantly, the Governor-appointed Commissioner of Public Health wrote this recommendation. If another political transition occurs, and a new Commissioner is appointed, will the report recommendations remain a legislative priority?
Marijuana legalization in New York would be consistent with public support. A recent Quinnipiac University poll reported support for legalized marijuana is at an all-time high in the state, with 63 percent of voters in favor of backing regulated adult-use cannabis. While nothing is ever certain during an election season, voters can be sure to see those issues deemed politically popular to be brought up ad naseum, et infinite, and marijuana regulation is certainly a hot topic.
Voters in New York should keep their state’s past policies and practices in mind when voting in the primaries and the final gubernatorial election. The road to cannabis legalization may be a long one for New York, but the report’s recommendations have certainly paved the first steps.