Twenty-four million people live in and around New York City, the U.S.’s most populous urban area and the linchpin of economic and cultural life for most of the country. The engine that keeps all this moving is the city’s subway system, much of which is running on century-old infrastructure. And, thanks to decades of underinvestment and “curious” political decisions, that infrastructure is now in dire need of both a million small fixes and a general upgrade.
What does this have to do with marijuana legalization? Nothing at all, except marijuana legalization gives New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on whose watch subway service has become noticeably and steadily worse, an easy financial out for covering those extensive repairs. But at what cost?
On Tuesday, Gov. Cuomo’s office announced preparations to legalize marijuana as early as next year. This move would give the governor, who is said to harbor presidential ambitions, a handy new stream of revenue that is also a popular policy. Cuomo could thus stand to reap political dividends without having to make truly difficult political choices, like doing something that might upset Republican lawmakers or big-business interests, both of whom Cuomo has openly courted, and both of whom he’ll need on his side if he’s serious about running for president in 2020.
New York has been crying out for a significant change in marijuana policy for a long time. The state has medical marijuana, but under restrictions so comically heavy they are unworkable. Thanks to pronouncements from district attorneys in Brooklyn and Manhattan as well as Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City is no longer the capital of petty marijuana busts in America, but it’s significant that de Blasio had to be shamed into action by the Drug Policy Alliance before anything happened.
Cuomo is not alone among centrist Democrats in viewing marijuana legalization as a popular alternative to difficult choices — that is, he is not alone in viewing marijuana legalization as a handy ATM rather than the antidote to decades of patently harmful and costly prohibition. In fact, touting legalization as a cash machine rather than both just and sound policy is now squarely in the mainstream Democrats’ playbooks, which means doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is now official policy.
In Chicago, outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel is reportedly cooking up a plan to legalize marijuana that would divert most of the tax money from legal sales to covering the $27 billion debt Chicago owes retired workers and is currently unable to pay them. And here’s Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was so obviously hedging his bets on weed that he did everything he could to discourage legalization when voters passed it in 2012, now riding high off the notion that Colorado, where more than $1 billion worth of marijuana is sold every year, is doing things the right way.
Does it matter that money rather than social justice or even common sense is motivating mainstream politicians to legalize marijuana, which every poll indicates enjoyed broad popular support like, years ago?
Maybe not. Maybe it is the ends and not the means that matter here, and maybe finally achieving legalization is the only thing that matters. But it’s important to realize this is a devil’s bargain and is unlikely to be overly friendly to the typical cannabis user, who has every reason to expect high taxes and stiff restrictions, and every reason to resent being looked at as a golden goose.
Ask yourself this: What happens when there’s legal weed in New York City, but it’s taxed so heavily that you’re driven back to the black market, there’s no amnesty for people convicted of marijuana-related crimes and the subway still sucks? By then, it might not matter to the political big shots: Cuomo may be safely out of office. Actions matter, and so do intentions.
TELL US, do you think marijuana legalization should fund government projects?