A new (non-smoking) champion for marijuana legalization in New York

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The weed panel. (Dana Rubinstein)
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“It is my intention as a New York State senator to soon introduce a law that would actually decriminalize, regulate and tax marijuana in New York,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, an Upper East Side liberal, on Wednesday night.

The room full of marijuana enthusiasts erupted into applause.

Liz Krueger is not, as she noted, a stoner. She says she last inhaled in the 1970s.

But at the Wedneday evening forum she hosted at Baruch College about her bid to legalize pot, she emerged as the unlikely hero of New York State’s marijuana legalization movement.

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Under Krueger's draft “Marijuana, Regulation, and Taxation Act,” first released Wednesday night, New York adults would be allowed to grow up to six pot plants at home. New Yorkers could buy and sell weed just like they buy and sell alcohol. And like alcohol, the business of weed sales would be regulated by the New York State Liquor Authority.

Drivers would not be allowed to operate vehicles under its influence. And marijuana would be heavily taxed, to the tune of $50 per ounce. (In New York City, an eighth of an ounce of reasonably good weed typically costs $50.)

Eighty percent of the proceeds would go to the state’s general fund, with the rest directed to substance abuse, criminal re-entry and job training programs. Localities would be able to tack on an extra five percent, or could opt out entirely.

“It’s almost embarrasing to be a New Yorker, to look around, and Connecticut and New Jersey and Vermont and Rhode Island, and Massachusetts and Maine all have legal medical marijuana, and we don’t,” said Ethan Nadelmann, the impassioned founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Eighteen states and Washington D.C., have medical marijuana laws on the books. Colorado and Washington state recently legalized recreational pot smoking, much like Krueger would like to do here at home.

But Nadelmann warned, "Marijuana ain’t gonna legalize itself."

To illustrate his point, he recalled the 1970s, when he was in college and marijuana legalization seemed a foregone conclusion.

Several states had decriminalized it, and during his campaign, soon-to-be president Jimmy Carter called for its decriminalization on the federal level.

At the movies, “that person would smoke a cigarette, that person a joint,” recalled Nadelmann. “It was all chill. And then,” he paused and made an explosive sound for effect, “It turned around fast.”

While in 1979, an annual survey of college freshman found 51 percent supported legalization, ten years later, only 16 percent did, according to Nadelmann.

Fast forward to 2010, when more New York City residents were arrested for marijuana possession than during the 19 years between 1978 and 1996. Most of  those arrests were of young blacks and Latinos, even though statistics indicate more whites smoke marijuana.

Momentum has in fact been slowly building in New York State in the direction of weed legalization.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed decriminalizing the public possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Among the 50 or so attendees hanging on Krueger's every word was a former High Times editor, a 22-year-old board member for New York State's chapter of NORML, and the executive director of the American Pot Smokers Association, the guy who regularly distributes fliers near Union Square Park.

So when, following the panel, Krueger took questions from the audience, several of them were of a distinctly servicey nature.

“This one I feel is for the doctor in the house," Krueger said at one point, reading a question from the audience off off an index card. "Is it healthier to use cannabis or not, and why?”

Panelist Julie Holland, a psychiatrist who used to run Bellevue's psychiatric emergency room and wrote The Pot Book, said the speed of legalization would depend on public displays of support for it outside the friendly confines of events like this one.

"In the same way that Harvey Milk felt strongly that if you want rights then you have to stand up and say that you want your rights, and that you’re gay and you want your rights, and I think it’s the same way with pot smokers," she said. "I think that people have to stand up and say ...  'I’m a C.P.A. and I pay my taxes and I vote and I’m a pot smoker."