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Editorial: Legalize marijuana, but with eyes open

There’s a lot we don’t yet know about the unintended consequences of legalizing marijuana, as a state panel has just recommended: its effect on rates of use, especially among adolescents; whether expanded use will create new dangers on the roads; the impact on companies that will have to worry about liabilities created by employees who are high. Those issues require examination.

Nevertheless, we do know a lot about the consequences of New York’s law as it exists: It is ignored in droves, by everyone from teenagers to business leaders; it is enforced unequally, with young black men paying a severely disproportional price compared to young white users; it consumes police and court time that could be put to far better use.

For those reasons, and others, the committee empaneled by the Cuomo administration is on the right track. New York should take time to investigate the issues closely, but in the end, legalization of marijuana seems inevitable.

Nine states have already legalized recreational marijuana, including two of New York’s neighbors, Vermont and Massachusetts. Canada legalized it just last month. What is more, like New York, the other three neighboring states – Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Jersey – have approved the medicinal use of marijuana.

The country has changed its mind. According to an April survey by Quinnipiac University, 63 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana, including 75 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of independents and 41 percent of Republicans. They also oppose any federal interference with state legalization efforts. Does anyone doubt that it’s only a matter of time?

But it’s important, too, to acknowledge the flip side: Driving while intoxicated became a national plague in the decades after Prohibition ended. What will happen when marijuana is legalized?

There are other concerns. As neuroscientist Judith Grisel wrote in The Washington Post earlier this year, teenagers can pay a severe price for chronic use of marijuana. While pot smoking by adults can “hamper or derail a successful and otherwise fulfilling life,” they can recover with abstinence. For teenagers, she said, the risks are much higher. Neuro-adjustment in their brains can produce consequences that “are more profound, perhaps even permanent.”

For heavy-smoking teens, she wrote, the costs can include reduced activity in brain circuits, failure to graduate from high school and increased risks for heroin addiction and attempted suicide. Offspring, born years later, may suffer from mental illness and addiction.

Grisel, it is worth noting, is no marijuana prude. As a teenager, she acknowledges, she was an enthusiastic and devoted pot-smoker. And she recognizes that worrying now about the effect on teenagers may be a bit like closing the barn door after the horses have galloped off: “More teenagers now smoke marijuana than smoke products with nicotine; between 30 and 40 percent of high school seniors report smoking pot in the past year, about 20 percent got high in the past month, and about 6 percent admit to using virtually every day.”

But the issues are similar to underage drinking and few think the solution to that problem is to ban alcohol for adults. The panel’s recommendation is to set the legal age for use at 21 (which for some, of course, will serve only to make it more tempting).

These are serious concerns that deserve more than passing consideration. It means that Albany must take its time as it considers the panel’s recommendation and evaluate the policies and levels of oversight that may be appropriate.

But in the end, the advantages of legalization would seem to outweigh the risks. Among those advantages are a safer, regulated supply of marijuana and projected state and local tax revenues of up to $678 million which will otherwise go to Canada or nearby states.

And it would put an end to the racially weighted enforcement of a law that is routinely broken and which most Americans want to jettison, anyway. It’s time to move on this, as slowly as necessary, but with legalization in mind.

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