By DAVID J. HILL
Published June 22, 2023
Local residents and urban planners, social workers and public health officials have differing viewpoints on certain aspects of New York State’s new regulations legalizing recreational cannabis for adults 21 years and older.
That’s according to the findings of a report on cannabis legalization in Western New York prepared by graduate students in a qualitative methods course Robert Silverman, professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, School of Architecture and Planning, taught during the spring semester.
“One of the things that the students’ research showed was that there were some contradictions in how cannabis legalization was being rolled out in New York State,” Silverman says. “For instance, there was general support for the social equity goals of the law, but potential beneficiaries of these policies remained stigmatized due to their past criminal convictions prior to reforms to cannabis laws in the state. There was also a general stigma attached to cannabis that led to a preference for zoning restrictions on where cannabis dispensaries could be located. The preference was for restrictions that often exceed state guidelines.”
The students’ research also suggested there was a lot of confusion in the community about how the law would be implemented and its impact on communities, Silverman adds.
The class split into two teams, each tasked with conducting focus group interviews, one with community members and another with officials, urban planners, social workers and public health officials, labeled as policy administrators.
“The recent legalization of recreational cannabis in New York State has led to the opening of legal dispensaries in both New York City and upstate New York. However, policymakers and community members are divided on the consequences of this legalization and the regulation of cannabis use,” the students wrote in the executive summary of a 30-page report they compiled.
“I was surprised by how the attitudes of policy administrators and the community members in the focus group differed concerning the social and economic equity provisions in the state’s recreational cannabis law,” says Schuyler Lawson, who just finished the third year of a PhD program in the School of Public Health and Health Professions focusing on tobacco-related health disparities in African American populations and social justice issues.
“While the policy administrators unanimously supported it, the community members voiced more mixed attitudes, with some even suggesting that ‘gangsters should not be selling weed.’ These differing opinions are very telling and suggest that more communication campaigns need to be implemented regarding this provision to dispel any misconceptions,” says Lawson.
Although he isn’t a cannabis researcher, the project was very relevant to Lawson’s career aspirations due to the social justice aspect of the state’s regulations.
“New York State’s recreational cannabis legislation includes a social and economic equity component that is supposed to prioritize cannabis store licenses to individuals from communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs, and that part of this project interested me because health disparities can be caused by racially biased enforcement of punitive laws,” Lawson says.
The project identified a major need for improved education of the public. “This was obvious in discussions about how licenses are granted and where dispensaries can locate,” Silverman notes.
“Another area of concern has to do with a lack of public education about amounts of cannabis that are legal to possess and rules related to growing and possession of cannabis at home, for personal uses,” he adds. “Regulations for these types of activities are still under development, but they will have implications for the degree to which people end up exposed to fines and criminal penalties in the future.”
The social equity aspect of the regulations will continue to be an important issue communities will need to address.
“I think the report shows that cannabis laws will vary widely across municipalities in New York, ranging from places where the sale of cannabis will be allowed with few restrictions, to complete bans on sales in places where local governments opted out allowing dispensaries,” Silverman says.
“That creates an environment where some of the social equity goals of the law will run into barriers and where the sale and use of cannabis will continue to cluster in lower income and minority communities. So, there is still a lot of work to be done on promoting social equity and ensuring that negative impacts of where cannabis businesses are sited do not reproduce existing inequities along the lines of race and class.”