Earlier this year, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his support of a regulated program for recreational marijuana. Many believe it’s only a matter of time until cannabis is legal on the streets of America’s biggest city. But what effect would legalization have on the Big Apple? According to a city budgetary executive, it would be more than just a financial windfall.
The Big Apple is where Bob Dylan cemented his place in folk history and Shawn Carter began his ascent from crack dealer to nine-figure rapper and business mogul. It’s where Jimi Hendrix solidified his status as a rock star and Jerry Seinfeld developed the backdrop for the most successful sitcom in American history.
Could New York also become the largest U.S. city with legal cannabis?
Signs point to yes. A New York State Health Department study released in July 2018 painted a positive picture of legalizing marijuana, and a NYC comptroller study projected a tax windfall of $336 million for New York City and $1.3 billion for the state. After calling the plant a “gateway drug” in 2017, governor Andrew Cuomo has gotten with the times and is now open to a recreational market in New York. State legislators are expected to discuss concrete plans for legalization in the next few months.
What could this additional cash buy for Empire City?
To find out, I talked to Daniel D. Miller, MPA, deputy executive director of New York City’s Board of Education Retirement System. He is responsible for developing policy guidelines and allocation strategies for over $6 billion in city assets.
Miller told me that legalizing cannabis would have a significant social impact on the city, in addition to its fiscal boon.
“Using the comptroller estimate as a baseline and accounting for savings from enforcement, legal marijuana would have a fiscal impact of $372.4 million on New York,” he said. “The additional revenue would impact communities disproportionately affected by marijuana arrests.”
The Financial Impact of Legal Cannabis in New York City
Miller explained how this extra money could make a serious difference in the city’s social programs.
“$20.6 million alone could be used to expand the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) by 10,000 slots. This would keep at-risk youths off the streets and provide them with income during the summer.”
According to the program’s website, SYEP provides youth employees to city employers at no cost. The effect of an additional 10,000 employees in the city, even for just the summer months, would be significant.
Miller also said revenue from legal cannabis could help support NYC’s Comprehensive After School System, which currently runs 900 programs that 97,000 students participate in. These programs offer young people recreation and academic development that is critical to their success as adults.
“Increased funding also has the additional impact of saving parents money on for-profit after school programs,” he said.
But the city program that needs the biggest financial windfall is also its most significant: The NYC subway system, run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). Over 5.5 million people squeeze into city subway cars every weekday. And as most of them will tell you – probably with a few four-letter words strewn in – the subway system is less than reliable. According to The New York Times, the MTA could need as much as $60 billionto get back to an acceptable service level.
Cannabis alone wouldn’t be a one-shot solution to raise this type of money. Almost nothing would, but combined with already-proposed steps like congestion pricing for drivers and fare hikes for subway riders, legal weed could be a key step out of the Manhattan-sized fiscal hole the metro is currently trying to claw its way out of.
Extra money could also make the subway more accessible to those who need to get around. Launched in the first week of January, the city’s Fair Fares program allows working New Yorkers at or below the poverty level to purchase discounted fare cards.
“The current Fair Fares budget allocates $106 million to launch the program for half-priced MetroCards for subway and local bus service,” Miller said. “With additional funding the city could double the number of city residents eligible to 1.6 million.”
What About Social Justice in New York City?
Outside of its additional tax revenue, the biggest impact legal cannabis would have on Gotham is by far on marijuana-related arrests, which disproportionately impact communities of color.
The New York Times summed it up perfectly in a headline from a May 2018 studyof the racial disparity in NYC marijuana arrests: “Surest Way to Face Marijuana Charges in New York: Be Black or Hispanic.” Their data found some alarming trends. Despite roughly equal rates of use among whites and minorities, on the island of Manhattan, being black makes you 15 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana.
NYPD has tried to defend this injustice by stating that more complaints about marijuana are made in neighborhoods with larger populations of blacks and Hispanics. But the Times debunked that claim: They found that cops in Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood, which is 85 percent black, made arrests for marijuana four times more often than in Greenpoint, which is four percent black, despite both precincts receiving about the same number of calls from that lame old dude down the hall.
“Since stop and frisk has been severely reduced, marijuana possession has become the de facto issue between police and young people of color,” Miller said.
Fortunately, in 2018 the city took big strides towards throwing out this racist policy for good. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in June that the NYPD would cut arrests for smoking in public by 50 percent, allowing people without a prior arrest for a violent crime to receive a summons instead of being handcuffed and taken to a station.
According to POLITICO, arrests for marijuana possession in New York City dropped 90 percent between September 2017 and September 2018. Legalizing cannabis would make the practice of arresting someone in New York for possessing the plant a thing of history, relegating it to America’s vast inventory of racist relics like Plessy v. Ferguson and the Three-Fifths Compromise.
Considering it would bring significant revenue to important public programs and do away with a law enforcement practice used unfairly against people of color, maybe it’s time for New York to let the Statue of Liberty’s torch illuminate more than just the path to freedom.