POT or NOT?…Look for the Money Trail

By A.E. Neuman

In a memorable moment in the movie “All the President’s Men” Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward asked his source “Deep Throat” who made the decision to cover up the break-in to the Watergate Hotel. He was told to “follow the money”; meaning …see who got paid off and by whom. Go back far enough and you find the answer to your question. In today’s times, that seems like good advice for most political inquiries, doesn’t it?

So, what about the political football that marijuana legalization represents? Now that Colorado and Washington State have legalized the sale and possession of pot, will the progressive state of New York be soon to follow? One would think so especially given that public opinion has recently shifted to heavily favor changing laws around it. After all, New York is usually out front on progressive legislation.

But, this time it isn’t. Why do you suppose that is?

The answer most likely requires a look back to the waning days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when Congress bolstered its overly idealistic mission to eradicate drug usage by doubling down on its financial commitment to local law enforcement. This measure, called the Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program, encouraged agencies across the country to put more resources toward drug policy enforcement, in return for more cash and equipment from the federal government.

Under this program, states and municipalities compete for yearly funds by submitting reports of the raw volume of narcotics seized, a figure fattened by marijuana arrests, which account for 52% of all drug arrests nationwide. In New York State in 2010 over 100,000 arrests were made for mere possession of pot, a figure that accounts for more than 25% of all misdemeanor arrests that year.

Of the millions of dollars doled out to New York law enforcement two years ago, nearly $10 million went to the State Justice division that handed out two-thirds of the money to local law enforcement, money with which they bought all sorts of exotic equipment. And this funding only gets bigger with the more

It would seem that a strong inference can be made with the information we have that local law enforcement ramps up possession and pot seizure cases in order to cash in on the bonus money they get from this program. And, look just a bit further and you may see a link between the amount of cash donated to individual political campaign coffers from the various police benevolent associations and the way those politicians voted on recent legislation. Yonkers State Senator Ball alone received $155,000 in Byrne money in 2012. In fact, public records reveal that nearly all of the Republicans who opposed the 2012 bill to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis received backing from state law enforcement unions. Senator Tom Libous of Binghamton was one of them.

As Albany moves quickly on two new pot initiatives this year, it is likely that New Yorkers will continue to relax their disposition toward cannabis, especially if the experiments in other states continue to unfold without a hitch. Unlike many lawmakers in the state senate, voters do not have a moneyed incentive to oppose drug reform – in fact, reforming marijuana laws is likely to save them about $430 million annually in New York City alone according to a report by the City’s Comptroller’s Office.



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