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New York City Council Holds Joint Hearing On Marijuana Legalization

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As the state of New York moves closer to legalizing marijuana, the New York City Council is making sure it has a say in what that legal market could look like.

On Wednesday, the council held a hearing on various cannabis-related proposals and resolutions that members introduced earlier this month.

Multiple committees—on public safety, the criminal justice system, civil and human rights and consumer affairs and business licensing—participated in the joint hearing.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., whose office announced last year that it would not prosecute individuals for possessing or consuming marijuana, testified before the panels and said that he supports legalization.

“It is my view that marijuana legalization can be done safely, and it will bring us one step closer to right-sizing the criminal justice system,” he said.

Legislation introduced by council members earlier this month included resolutions calling for the passage of a U.S. Senate bill to end federal marijuana prohibition, restitution for communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war and giving localities more regulatory authority over cannabis sales.

Some members at the hearing challenged the idea of legalization, though, pressing Vance on whether ending cannabis prohibition would encourage youth consumption and impaired driving.

Others who are more sympathetic to the idea stressed the need to ensure that whatever legal system emerges in New York contains social equity provisions designed to repair the damages caused by the war on drugs. There was substantial discussion concerning the long-term consequences of being convicted for low-level marijuana offenses and the need to clear those records and exercise discretion in enforcement.

Legalization advocates agreed.

“As we gather here in the marijuana arrest capital of the country, repairing the damage done by marijuana prohibition and ensuring that the communities most harmed can participate in the industry absolutely must be centered,” Melissa Moore, New York state deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in testimony shared with Marijuana Moment.

“Legalization can be an economic engine driving wealth and equity in marginalized communities and providing space for alternative economic systems—if we work intentionally,” she said.

Council Member Jumaane Williams (D), who introduced a measure that would prohibit most employers in the city from administering pre-employment drug tests for cannabis, brought up a proposal issued this week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) to use funds from legal marijuana sales to fund improvements to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He said he disagrees “fully” with the idea.

Williams, who was elected on Tuesday as the city’s public advocate, also encouraged the use of the term “underground market” instead of “black market.”

As the hearing was happening, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark announced that his office would join those in Manhattan and Brooklyn in declining to prosecute marijuana possession and consumption offenses.

“This policy carefully weighs the public safety concerns with the realization that far too often these prosecutions create undue obstacles on individuals and the community as whole,” Clark said in a press release.

There will be additional hearings on the council members’ cannabis bills and resolutions in different committees next week, and advocates expect votes later in March.

The timeline for ending prohibition on the state level has become uncertain, as some leading lawmakers have indicated that the governor’s budget proposal on legalization might not make it into the final document approved by the legislature. There would be opportunities for lawmakers to pass separate standalone legislation to legalize this session, however.

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Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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