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Another Voice: Big money is behind the rush to marijuana legalization

By Kevin Sabet

Since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo flip-flopped on recreational marijuana the issue of legalization has gained an unfortunate air of inevitability. This perception has spurred Wall Street investors to dive in and brought cheers from pro-pot advocates who claim legal weed is a major step for social justice.

As the volume has risen on commercialization, rhetoric, even from staunchly pro-pot advocates like Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, has begun to acknowledge that rushing this policy shift may come with major consequences.

One of the chief reasons is that it’s becoming increasingly clear that legal weed isn’t about social justice. It’s about money, with Big Tobacco investing billions to profit off another harmful substance.

Multi-national players are rushing to corner New York’s market. City & State NY recently detailed how Constellation Brands, a business based in Victor, Ontario County, spent $4 billion to purchase a major share of Canopy Growth, a Canadian-based marijuana company. The transaction was quickly followed by an announcement that state grants would help fund a hemp processing facility in nearby Binghamton.  

Locally, Flora California Prime Inc., run by Brad Termini, the son of Buffalo developer Rocco Termini, has secured an agreement to purchase 72 acres from the Buffalo Urban Development Corp., a government-affiliated nonprofit, to establish a growing and processing operation on the city’s waterfront. Like others moving into the recreational pot field, the Terminis are well-heeled donors to Gov. Cuomo and other local officials.

Legislators could soon even vote to approve commercialization against the recommendations of the New York State PTA, the Medical Society, law enforcement groups and others.  

Many legislators – keying in on the social justice rationale – have seen legalization as a solution to a justice system that doesn’t treat all defendants equally. Commercialization won’t solve that problem.

No state that has legalized pot has seen a reduction in prison populations. As it stands, only 3 percent of the nation’s prison population is made up of individuals with marijuana-related offenses – the majority having been convicted of trafficking the drug, often in large quantities.

In Denver, where pot shops outnumber McDonalds and Starbucks combined, weed stores are overwhelmingly clustered in minority and low-income neighborhoods. Like the tobacco and alcohol industries before it, Big Pot is preying on these communities.

Should legislators choose to make New York a test case by opening the state to commercialized marijuana through legislative action, not public referendum, it will be on them when expectations don’t become reality.

Rushing through such a complex issue doesn’t serve anyone, except a growing industry that has a track record of putting profits before people. New Yorkers would instead be better served if Albany took a step back, evaluated the facts and science and pivoted to decriminalization, instead of a commercialization scheme that brings real costs and dangers.

 Kevin Sabet is president and CEO of  Smart Approaches to Marijuana New York.

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