Meet the NYC Councilman Who Wants To Legalize Weed

November 12, 2014 | Amy K. Nelson

When news leaked earlier this week that Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton would be jointly announcing a new city-wide initiative to, essentially, honor the 1977 statute that decriminalizing weed, City Councilman Mark Levine was already way ahead of them.

Through Twitter, Levine, a Democrat, announced his support for an end to pot prohibition in New York City. What he said: legalize weed.

Levine, who represents District 7 — which includes parts of Harlem, Washington Heights and Morningside Heights — isn’t the first pol to publicly take this stance; the people’s champ, State Senator Liz Krueger (D), has been all over this issue. She plans to introduce a bill, again, this January before the state legislature. Levine said he hasn’t coordinated with Krueger, but would welcome the opportunity. “She’s been way, way ahead of this, and ahead of the crowd much more than me,” he said. “I would love to work with her to try and take this to the next level.”

Joining the chorus of New York politicians who are endorsing legalization is Assembleyman Steve Katz. The Republican is probably the most all in, and also has become a weed investor. And then there’s State Senator Diane Savino, who has been a relentless advocate for families regarding the medical marijuana bill that was signed this past spring, which certainly seems to lean toward recreational legalization.

This much is clear: Levine has chosen a side. The councilman spoke to ANIMAL for 20 minutes on the phone Tuesday night, expanding on his reasons for why legalization should be something not only taken seriously, but to be debated seriously by politicians. Like, in real life. And — spoiler alert! — the councilman even answers whether he’s personally smoked weed. Below is a transcript of our conversation that has been slightly edited for clarity.

How do you envision legalization in NYC?

It has to happen at the state level. And another policy sector where New York City’s fate is not in its own hands. The list is depressingly long … I think that, as city leaders, we can do a tremendous amount to build momentum for a change. This has been, for a long time, a taboo topic among elected officials, at a time when public opinion is moving at an incredibly fast pace. I think officials are actually behind public opinion on this.

Do you envision legalization here being more like Colorado and Washington, or maybe something more akin to Amsterdam, where there are dispenseries in coffee shops?

I’m not ready to lay out that level of specifics. I do think it should be taxed and regulated so we can eliminate the illegal trade with all the intended social problems that [that] brings, so we can get some tax revenue off it so that we can regulate safety and public health concerns including, of course, prohibiting sales to anyone under age 21. Of course, advertising would be banned. But that’s going to yield benefits on so many levels. It’s going to free up police resources to focus on violent crime and other areas that need our priorities. It will eliminate what has been an incredible racial disparity in the way marijuana is essentially enforced. It will free up prison space and it will cease tainting young people for their entire lives with criminal records, which can impact their educational and professional trajectories. There are a lot of reasons to do this. I think NY State is in the early stages of beginning to grapple with what this might look like here. … I feel like my role is to make it safer to speak out on this. There really hasn’t been [a safe space] until now, for other elected officials. To move this from the realm of taboo topic to one that can be seriously debated.

Because it’s been politically risky to voice opinion on this — although that’s been trending better in the last year — have you had backdoor conversations with other colleagues?

I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I can say broadly speaking that people have been reluctant to speak out on this issue because in years’ past there really has been a political price paid. And it was really only leaders way out of the mainstream who would speak out on this. I think there’s also a lot of additional education we have to make among policy makers to understand just what are the proven health risks, or lack thereof, to marijuana and certainly compared to alcohol and tobacco. And what’s great about the events of this week [is] it got people really focused on the legal implications of the current policy and the disparate impact and its drain on police resources. I think there’s an education process that we’re all going through. I think the change in public opinion is making it safer to speak out. But that I think most elected officials are being quite cautious still.

Have you been able to get a handle on what projected revenue for this city will be? Have you seen what John Liu has estimated?

Only in the broadest sense. What John Liu announced is probably the best I have now. It’s clearly going to be substantial, if you look at what we’re bringing in from cigarettes. And if you add in what we won’t be spending on enforcement, then that financial benefit will clearly be in the billions.

Do politicians often overlook the other industries that legalization can spark? For example, everyone points to the taxes raised, but often other sectors aren’t mentioned — like real estate, tourism, paraphernalia, etc.

I don’t think any of this is being analyzed at all, for the most part. Every one of those elements is worthy of consideration. At this point it’s the potential multiplier effect of creation of what would be a potentially fairly large industry if current consumption rates continue. But signs are, if I’m not mistaken, in Colorado that they’ve already seen benefits in each of the sections you’ve identified.

Do you think right now that because it’s still taboo, politically, for most, that this is the hardest hurdle to clear in trying to get weed legalized?

For sure, but I think it’s fading a little bit every day. I think, as more and more states move to legalize it — at least medical if not for full recreational use — as polls continue to show a rapid shift of public opinion, and as more elected leaders begin to step out, this becomes a little safer every day. And I hope and believe that soon we’ll move to a place where this will be a subject of real policy debate so we can begin to explore the kind of questions that you raise like, What might legalization look like in New York with so many models around the country and the world? What might the tax benefits [look like], and other economic benefits? And what would we do to make sure minors don’t get greater access? And what kind of education programs can we build to mimic some of what’s been so effective in reducing tobacco use?

Do you think it’s possible weed could be legalized in 2015 in New York?

It’s a heavy lift, but I think for us to understand more of the medical program is a sure possibility. Remember, the initial program was more described as a pilot program. It’s so small, so limited and the conditions of which marijuana would be legalized and the avenues in which it would be dispensed that, for all practical purposes, it won’t touch the majority of New Yorkers. And I think moving to a more comprehensive medical legalization is imminently doable. We live in an age where the political landscape changes faster than ever and you only have to look at how quickly we’ve moved on the debate of gay marriage in this country. My read of the polls of medical marijuana is [that it’s] moving as fast if not faster than the polls of gay marriage did. The most recent poll in New York state was back in May, but at that point it … shows you where its heading. If that trend continues, I think you can see a dramatic shift in the political dialogue here. I would hope that would be the case.

What’s the biggest benefit that legalization could bring to this country overall?

I take it from the NYC/NY State perspective. Freeing up police resources to fight more serious crime. Ending a practice of criminalizing, which is primarily men of color for a non-violent activity in a way that can also scar them for life. Generating tax revenue and other economic benefits. Those would be the big three, I’d say.

Why do you think this has become more accepted, why this sudden shift?

You talk to people who have been advocates for this for decades and they themselves are shocked. Some leading advocates say 10, 15 years ago, we’d refuse to believe it was possible. I think it’s frustration with the approach to fighting the drug war which reigned in the ’80s and, to a lesser extent, in the ’90s, which resulted in mass incarceration, and a realization that that’s been — at least in terms of the drug trade — a complete failure. And that it’s also taken a tremendous toll from a human and financial perspective. … Younger generations are moving toward a more liberterian view toward more social matters in general. In that perspective, the link to same-sex marriage is quite clear. For most young people, if you’re not doing harm to anyone else, then government has no business telling you you can’t do it. And the actions between consenting adults — more and more people saying it shouldn’t be the government’s business. If you’re not doing clear destructive harm to yourself — such as consumption of more serious narcotics, and if you’re not clearly posing a threat to society — then it’s hard to see what the public interest in continuing to fight a war in marijuana use that’s cost us so much money and affected so many lives.

Since your tweet, what has been the reaction you’ve received?

Overwhelmingly positive. I haven’t gotten so much as a negative tweet. Every bit of response I’ve gotten has been positive and supportive, which tells you something.

What is next for you with this issue?

My personal goal is to understand more from a policy perspective to what ending prohibition may look like, and what kind of tax regime we might want to replace it with. You’ve asked a bunch of questions I’ve only begun to ask myself and I think the more that we have thought through in a sober way the policy implications, the more it moves from being abstract to more of a possibility.

Have you yourself ever smoked weed?

You’re going to be shocked at how little I have, considering the policy I’m advocating. I’ve tried it once or twice, it hasn’t done much for me. There’s no personal interest; I don’t anticipate my behavior will change. I’m doing this out of a more broader thinking in the public’s interest.

(Photo: Mark Levine)