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Editorial: Don't inhale – yet

The timing was interesting. The state’s health commissioner on Monday said that a panel convened by the Cuomo administration would be recommending the legalization of recreational marijuana use in New York State. Dr. Howard Zucker made the announcement to reporters in Brooklyn the same day the Buffalo Billion trial was beginning in Manhattan, as the campaign of Democratic challenger Cynthia Nixon was quick to point out.

Was that a strategic move on the part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, to divert attention from the courthouse proceedings? One can only guess, but Nixon’s campaign challenge from the left has no doubt helped focus the governor’s attention on the issue.

Legalizing pot is something worthy of serious study, which is exactly why it would be a mistake for the state Legislature to try to throw together a bill Wednesday, the last day of the session before summer recess.

Cuomo’s position has evolved on the issue. He previously declared marijuana was a “gateway drug,” and opposed legalization for casual use. Now, says Zucker, “We have new facts.”

Those include the reality that New Jersey, Massachusetts and the whole of Canada are about to make marijuana use legal. If New York does not loosen its laws, the state risks losing money to neighboring states and provinces. Regulating and taxing legal pot sales could bring some big revenue into the state treasury.

There are other reasons to consider legalization. One is the racial imbalance that shows up in drug arrests. A study released late last year found that in Erie County, people of color accounted for 77 percent of all marijuana possession arrests over the period from 2012 to 2016. The same report noted that the percentage of blacks and Hispanics living in the county was about 18 percent.

We hate to harsh anyone’s mellow, but there are also good arguments for going slowly on legal pot before lighting up the “for sale” sign.

What exactly are the risks of addiction? The Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers of New York State said making marijuana legal should be accompanied by “robust and well-funded” prevention, education and treatment programs, and called for a comprehensive examination of the issue.

With Republicans holding a majority in the state Senate, it’s highly unlikely that a “pot for everyone” bill will be rushed through. Still, stranger things have happened in Albany. Let’s hope this time that caution and good sense prevail.

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