What becomes of the pot dealers?
In the new New York, with legalized marijuana, what happens to the massive criminal infrastructure which currently exists to illegally distribute and sell marijuana?
What happens to those people, that money, and those communities?
It has been an interesting year for marijuana in New York. It dawned with the governor believing it was a gateway drug fueling ultimately the opioid crisis and much social dissipation and dysfunction. It ends with that same governor declaring that it is racism that criminalizes marijuana and that he will see that it is soon legalized.
What happened is it became in his best political interest to support recreational marijuana – so he did. And the $1 billion in annual taxes he expects to skim off the product didn’t hurt any.
So yesterday he stood up and declared that marijuana is on the way.
Which is interesting, because it is already here. What he is truly proposing is replacing street weed with Cuomo weed.
And in the universe of unintended consequences, it might be worth thinking through what could happen when a political expediency lands in the real world.
Which gets back to the question: What becomes of the pot dealers?
The reality is that in many of New York’s cities, there are extensive networks of people distributing and selling marijuana. It is their livelihood, and it can be a significant part of the micro-economy of some neighborhoods and families. As you go up that distribution chain, the dollars and the impacts get bigger.
And the governor wants to replace that entire enterprise with one of his own creation.
But what will happen to those criminal organizations – large and small – and the people who are profited by them?
Will they simply disappear? Will corner pot dealers decide to become architects and fast-food franchisees? Will young men driven to drug dealing by a lack of education and skills commute downtown and become executives? Will the midlevel and upper-level distributors give up their livelihoods and retire to Florida to write poetry?
Hundreds of people are involved in the marijuana business in most of New York’s cities, and the governor is going to take away their livelihood.
Put less politely, he is going to move the commerce and profit of pot sales from low-income black and Latino community residents to high-income white political donors.
The governor and his friends have decided to take over the pot business.
And they don’t seem to have given any thought to how the people who currently control that business might react.
Here are some possibilities.
They may react by continuing to sell illegal tax-free marijuana. There is no doubt that the kid on the corner will have cheaper pot than taxed, licensed and regulated legal vendors.
They may shift their emphasis to more-dangerous drugs. Instead of selling marijuana, the illegal network may simply increase its emphasis on opioids or synthetic intoxicants. Opioids are not only far more addicting, they are also price competitive. Their illegal product will also retain the forbidden-fruit cachet that appeals to some drug users.
They may shift into other types of criminal activity. If desperation drives a young man to sell pot, and that venue dries up, perhaps he is now driven to more direct crimes. If I can’t get your money by selling you marijuana, maybe I can get it by robbing you, or by breaking into your home. There’s no telling what sort of mischief unemployed criminals can get into.
Further, there is the reality that the money made selling marijuana goes into more than just gold chains and saggy pants. In the real world of some city streets, grandmothers and siblings are supported, at least in part, by a young man’s drug sales. There is a financial churn to that money that supports stores and barber shops and other legal businesses.
The illegal marijuana trade is part of the economy in many urban New York neighborhoods. Just as the smell of marijuana hangs on the air, the impact of its sale percolates through people’s lives.
I’m not saying that it’s a good thing, but it is a thing. And when you propose the destruction of a thing – especially when it plays an important role in some people’s lives – you’re going to have pushback and consequence.
And I don’t think the governor’s thought about that.
I also don’t think that he would care either way.
But it is something that the rest of us – from the police to the social service agencies – might want to consider, and prepare for.
Marijuana Grow Near Albany For State's Legal Medical Marijuana Dispensaries (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images