Every week, New York City residents lose hours of their lives to a rapidly deteriorating subway system. One in three weekday trains face delays. Power outages, crumbling platforms, track fires, collapsing tunnels, and overcrowding—everyone knows the subway is falling apart. But the money to fix it seems impossible to find. After decades of neglect, politicians are starting to talk the talk of a subway overhaul, yet adequate funding never seems to materialize. The problem, however, is already too large to ignore.
Today, the MTA subway system is little more than an ad hoc patchwork of emergency repairs barely holding cars and trains together. And short of tax increases, which no one in office seems willing to propose, the state and city are looking at anything and everything that could possibly fund the $40 billion investment it will take to fix things—including a regulated and taxed retail cannabis industry.
Subway riders in New York are so angry about the subway they might be willing to legalize anything as long as it improves service. Just check the #fucktheMTA hashtag on Twitter. Governments in weed-legal states across the country have funded public initiatives with cannabis taxes. And with New Yorkers already calling for an end to prohibition, legalization advocates are beginning to frame a drug policy shift as one that could provide a significant source of revenue to fix the subway.
While many of New York’s most progressive candidates lost out in this year’s general election, Democrats now have full control of the State Legislature. Pressure from pro-legalization rivals and a June report from the state health department forced Andrew Cuomo to revise his anti-legalization stance during his reelection bid. District attorneys in Manhattan and Brooklyn have announced policy changes aimed at decriminalizing cannabis in the courtroom and expunging convictions. Meanwhile, neighboring New Jersey and Massachusetts are setting up adult-use markets. In sum, the political conditions for legalization are as ideal in New York as they’ve ever been. Connecting two immensely popular causes—legal weed and an improved subway—seems like a strong move for any Democratic majority.
Indeed, a recently formed task force is taking a look at cannabis legalization alongside a number of other initiatives to raise the money MTA needs to repair its subway system. And they have a new report from an NYU transportation expert to support their legalization proposal. The Metropolitan Transportation Sustainability Advisory Workgroup’s 10 members includes prominent Senate Democrats like Michael Gianaris as well as high-ranking members of powerful business groups.
Legalizing cannabis and investing the tax revenue in the MTA is a no-brainer. But what makes it a particularly compelling proposal are the intertwined histories of the subway’s decline and the city’s criminalization of its poor residents and residents of color. Since they haven’t taxed the city’s economic elite, politicians have always tried to pay for the subway with deficit spending and fare hikes. But it doesn’t take long before the city has to impose further fare hikes to cover the interest on the loans it took out with the big banks. Today, debt service and income payments are the MTA’s largest expense—not repairs or salaries and pensions for transit workers.
Furthermore, one third of the six million people who ride the subway everyday are low-income, making under $25,000 annually. Two-thirds of all riders are people of color. Their fare payments foot the bill for the bank fees the MTA has to pay, not improving service and safety. Yet those riders depend on the subway to make it to work, where their labor generates profits for wealthy businesses politicians.
Starved public services and infrastructural neglect also impact communities of color disproportionately, contributing to the poverty that the city addresses with nightsticks and handcuffs instead of meaningful social investment. The NYPD has a well-documented history of targeting impoverished communities and communities of color for drug enforcement, extracting even more wealth from underserved communities in the form of arrest and incarceration for misdemeanor drug crimes. Or as gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon put it, “for something white people do with impunity.”
Legalizing weed and using proceeds to repair the subway would doubly redress the historical harms caused by criminalizing cannabis and placing the bulk of the burden of repairing essential infrastructure on residents who can least afford it.
According to the health department’s June report, legal weed could generate up to $670 million in annual tax revenue. Just a fraction of the estimated $40 billion it would take to fix the MTA system; of course, the enormity of the task facing the MTA can’t be solved by weed taxes alone. Legalization will have to be part of a broader strategy to generate funds. But perhaps no proposal would be more transformative, especially for New York’s working class, than ending the prohibition on cannabis.
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