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What Took So Long? New York Has Many Reasons to Legalize Cannabis

Marijuana prohibition has created or compounded many social problems that legalization can help solve.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Governor Andrew Cuomo just announced that he's making New York weed legalization a priority in 2019. "Let's legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana once and for all," Governor Cuomo said in a speech detailing his plans for his first 100 days in office.

Erik McGregor | Getty Images

Not only are New Yorkers closer than ever to legal cannabis consumption, but legalization could help solve many of the Empire State's most daunting problems. Here's why Governor Cuomo and the majority of New Yorkers are pushing for weed legalization in what will be America's biggest recreational cannabis market.

New York City will be the largest legal weed market in the country.

Both West Coast chains and newer East Coast weed businesses want access to New York, America's third-largest economy, and New York City, the country's largest regional economy. And not only is New York City the biggest city in the U.S., but New Yorkers smoke the most weed in the world.

Brad Nattrass, CEO of agriculture technology firm urban-gro, explained, "Should this legislation pass, New York will be one of the largest recreational markets and will open the door for many commercial cultivators."

More specifically, New York's retail cannabis market size would be worth an estimated $3.1 billion, and New York City alone would be worth $1.1 billion, according to a report filed by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. As a result, cannabis growers, retailers and ancillary services are itching to move into this big, untapped market and pro-weed lobbying is over the past five years ranges in the millions.

Related: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Declares Full Legalization Is a Priority for 2019

Politicians and citizens alike want more NY tax revenue (without raising taxes).

A $3.1 billion a year market translates to a lot of tax revenue for the state. New York City alone would be looking at $336 million in annual tax revenue. And New York State would receive $436 million, per the Comptroller's report. According to Jessica Billingsley, CEO and Co-Founder of MJ Freeway, "Governor Cuomo's commitment to opening legal and regulated access to cannabis creates a billion dollar revenue stream that will directly impact lives of New Yorkers."

Potential tax revenue is so significant that recreational cannabis could be a means to fund New York City's estimated $4 billion Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) renovation project. Notable supporters include Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins who sees legalization as one of a few potential solutions to solve the MTA's budget crisis, as opposed to less popular options like congestion pricing.

The majority of New York residents support legalization.

"Marijuana legalization is much more popular among voters than nearly any politician," explained Josh Rosen, CEO of 4Front, a brand development company in the cannabis space. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 63 percent of New York State and City voters are in favor of legalizing possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use.

New York City is under scrutiny for racial disparities in weed possession arrests.

Numerous reports have found that though people of different ethnicities consume the same amount of cannabis, there are unignorable racial disparities in weed-related arrests. In New York City, 87 percent of people arrested for weed possession were Hispanic or Black. Following public outcry, there is increasing momentum to stop racially biased policing and expunge convictions.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has advocated for clearing marijuana-related convictions as part of legalization. Governor Cuomo has also cited the "debilitating criminal stigma" associated with weed-related convictions.

Related: Cannabis Legalization and the Quest for Social and Economic Justice

Legalizing weed would fight New York's opioid epidemic.

New York weed legalization could curb the state's opioid epidemic. In states with legal weed, opioid overdose deaths have fallen by 25 percent. The New York Health Department released a report that correlates legal cannabis with a decrease in opioid addiction.

"States with medical marijuana programs have been found to have lower rates of opioid overdose deaths than other states," the Health Department explains in the report.

Related: Minnesota Study Adds to Growing Evidence Medical Marijuana Reduces Opioid Use

New York stands to lose potential tax income to New Jersey and Massachusetts.

The longer New York weed legalization takes, the more New Yorkers will turn to neighboring states with recreational cannabis, notably New Jersey (presuming it finally succeeds at passing legalization) and Massachusetts.

Kris Krane, President of 4Front, explained that New York advocacy from groups like Drug Policy Alliance and neighboring legalization efforts have both played a role in Cuomo's decision to support recreational cannabis. "Marijuana is now being legally sold to adults in the Northeast, and the retail store in Northampton MA is only a 90-minute drive from the NY Governor's Mansion in Albany," Krane said.

Why haven't we seen a push for New York weed legalization until now?

Legalization in the Empire State is long overdue. Governor Andrew Cuomo is a Democrat. Democrats also have a majority in the state Senate for the first time in many years, and hold a strong majority in the state Assembly. Public opinion, state coffers and the national tide all point toward New York weed legalization. But before Cuomo's game-changing decision to add New York weed legalization to the docket for early 2019, cannabis reform wasn't even on the New York Democratic Party's official list of priorities.

Anti-cannabis lobbying is still prevalent nation-wide.

The biggest reason for this is anti-cannabis lobbying. Though the cannabis industry is booming, other industries see a direct negative correlation between their profitability and legalization. In states with legal medical cannabis, the average doctor prescribed 1,826 fewer painkiller doses per year according to a study published in Health Affairs. Not only that, but anti-anxiety, anti-nausea and seizure medication prescriptions also decreased by approximately 500 doses per doctor per year.

In other words, there is significant incentive for pharmaceutical companies to stop, or delay, New York weed legalization, especially considering the size of the market. Keep in mind that Bristol-Myers Squibb and Pfizer, two of the nation's largest pharmaceutical companies, are based in New York.

Anti-cannabis lobbying has been the biggest obstacle facing legalization efforts nationwide and in New York. In addition to big pharma, casinos, private prisons and the alcohol industry have all lobbied against weed legalization across the country. According to, private prisons alone have spent over $800,000 in New York state elections since 2012.

Related: A Plea to Our Elders: Consider Medical Marijuana Before Opioids

Is New York weed legalization in the near future?

Governor Cuomo has stated that legislation will be drafted as early as January 2019, and the reasons to legalize recreational cannabis have never been more compelling. Businesses are lobbying for the economic opportunities of a New York market, public support is at an all-time high, the state is desperate for income and racial disparities in police arrests have galvanized a large social movement.

But as we've seen with legalization in New Jersey, this process takes time -- even when politicians, voters and corporations all want the same thing. No legislation has been proposed, nor is there an official timeline for legalization in New York. Though cannabis legalization in New York seems behind schedule already, there is still a long road or negotiations ahead before weed hits the shelves.