Marijuana is far from being legalized in New York — but city politicians are already arguing over how best to burn through the green legal weed might bring in to state coffers.
Public advocate candidate Melissa Mark-Viverito unveiled a “Weed For Rails” plan to use the profits of legal marijuana to fund the city’s ailing subway system — sparking a debate over whether the transit crisis is the best use of pot profits.
“It is affecting working-class people every day, we hear it, this is a crisis, and everybody talks about it,” Mark-Viverito said. “We need infusion of revenue now for the MTA, not five years from now, not three years from now, and if we legalize marijuana this is one of the fastest sources of revenue that we can see in the State of New York.”
But other lawmakers have different ideas for how to spend a pot of money that does not yet exist — including Councilman Rafael Espinal, who is also running for public advocate and said 100% of revenues should go to “communities of color” that have been hit hardest by marijuana law enforcement.
“NYCHA is crumbling at the same rate and pace as the MTA is, and we should be prioritizing NYCHA with that extra revenue,” Espinal said. “We should be also looking at how we can invest that money into economic development for (minority- and women-owned business),” he said.
Mark-Viverito’s plan calls for at least 50% of reefer revenue to go to the subways, with other revenue helping to address “historical wrongs.” Her plan calls for expunging criminal convictions for recreational users; giving minority- and women-owned businesses priority for licences to grow and sell marijuana, and to set up a fund to support non-profits to reach business management to low-income people.
Asked about Espinal’s argument for how to spend the money, Mark-Viverito was blunt.
“He doesn’t have a plan,” she said.
Controller Scott Stringer also waded into weed Thursday, which his office has estimated could bring in $336 million a year for the city, on top of another $436 million a year for the state.
He, too, called for investing the revenue in “impacted communities,” dispensing money to localities and organizations working with neighborhoods that have the highest rates of marijuana arrests.
Stringer is also calling for a “cannabis equity program” to help entrepreneurs interested in working with weed, giving priority to those with marijuana-related convictions.
As for Mark-Viverito’s “Weed for Rails,” she insisted that legalizing marijuana could move more quickly than hashing out other options to fund the subway, like congestion pricing, which she also supports.
“If we have the political will, we can do it. To set up congestion pricing takes infrastructure in the city, that’s a lot of expectations and planning and figuring out how that infrastructure fits within the landscape of our city. So there’s a lot of coordination and work that goes into that,” she said. “Setting up a dispensary, and legalizing — once marijuana is approved, if there’s a political will, it can get done quickly.”
But legal weed doesn’t usually sprout overnight. In California, voters legalized it November of 2016; it began being sold on Jan. 1, 2018. In Massachusetts, voters also approved legal weed in 2016, and it took two years for sales to begin last month.