Will New York’s Marijuana Windfall Go Up In Smoke?

Somewhere between the 1936 “Reefer Madness” film that demonized marijuana and today’s popular notion that weed is a solution to all our problems, economic, social and otherwise, lies reality. Now that state lawmakers have legalized possession, use and sale of the drug, advocates on both sides of the issue need to work together to ensure that Long Island reaps the benefits promised by pot proponents and avoids the pitfalls that worry skeptics.

Economics drove much of the debate in cash-strapped Albany and Governor Andrew Cuomo estimated that New York would enjoy $350 million annually in new marijuana tax revenues. That sounds like a lot of money, yet constitutes only .17% of the state’s $212 billion budget and nobody expects to see a dime for at least 12 months as regulators roll out the necessary infrastructure. There wasn’t much discussion about the costs; beyond the $35 million it will take to create a new Office of Cannabis Management, there will also be tax collection and administrative expenses, new law enforcement costs, reimbursement for data collection and reporting, and several required impact studies. How much money will be left over for public schools, for promised social justice grants and whether the monies designated in the new law for drug treatment and public health education is anyone’s guess.

Nobody, of course, expects New York’s cannabis program to lose money, but it’s entirely possible to wind up in the red if we don’t pro-actively address some potential big-ticket expenses with focused public health safety education now.

Traffic safety and impaired driving emerged as key concerns in the marijuana debate, and Long Islanders are especially vulnerable given our suburban reliance on cars and the fact that Suffolk County leads the state in highway fatalities, with Nassau close behind.

Car crashes are expensive, costing the US more than $242 billion annually, inclusive of lost productivity, medical costs, legal and court costs, emergency medical service costs, insurance costs, congestion costs, property damage, and workplace losses, with about $59.4 billion of those expenses stemming from alcohol-related collisions.

The bad news is that cops don’t have a breathalyzer to detect a driver’s level of marijuana impairment and consumer education is challenging because several factors influence intoxication onset, intensity, and duration, including the type of marijuana product consumed, how it’s ingested, its potency based on THC content, and user characteristics. Thankfully, car crashes are entirely preventable and the combined use of technology, tough laws and public education have successfully reduced DWI injuries and deaths. We need emergent technology to measure cannabis intoxication objectively, and a focused driver education campaign to promote highway safety so we don’t lose ground.

Drug treatment and social services aren’t nearly as expensive as car crashes, but they’re not cheap. Marijuana use accounts for most of New York’s adolescent substance abuse and mental health treatment admissions, figures prominently in many school suspensions, and child welfare cases have climbed in states that have launched recreational marijuana programs. Pediatric emergency department visits and poison control center calls have skyrocketed in other states post-legalization as toddlers have ingested their parents high-THC edibles.

A statewide public health campaign that educates the general public, including parents, consumers and retailers, on the potential health consequences associated with cannabis use, the importance of preventing youth access, the importance of safe storage and preventing exposure to second-hand smoke, information for pregnant or breastfeeding women and warnings about the overconsumption of edible cannabis products would make a significant difference.

Car crashes, pediatric poisonings, school expulsions and failures and family chaos all come with immense economic costs, but they also have immense human and social costs that can be averted. Let’s get a running head start now, before a single cannabis store opens in New York State.