AUBURN — When Will Jones walks out of his Washington, D.C, home, the first business he sees is a liquor store. The storefronts are covered in advertisements for alcoholic beverages.
Jones, a communications and outreach associate for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, worries that there will be similar promotional efforts if there is widespread legalization of marijuana.
"We've been down this road before with other products," said Jones, who spoke at Cayuga Community College in Auburn Thursday night. His presentation was organized by the Cayuga County Drug Free Community Coalition.
Smart Approaches to Marijuana, Jones explained, supports decriminalization of marijuana. But the group opposes marijuana legalization primarily due to the commercialization of the drug.
Ten states and the District of Columbia have legalized the adult use of marijuana. In New York, there are several proposals to allow adult-use cannabis. Gov. Andrew Cuomo released his own proposal in January.
Proponents of marijuana legalization argue that it's an important criminal justice reform, especially for communities of color that are disproportionately affected by drug-related arrests.
But Jones views the criminal justice claims as a cover for the real reason supporters want marijuana legalization. He believes there is a greater interest in legalizing marijuana for the financial benefits.
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With marijuana legalization, he warned that there could be a repeat of what happened with Big Tobacco — products with kid-friendly labels and aggressive marketing practices.
"There are fascinating parallels between marijuana and tobacco," he said.
Jones also noted that there is a connection between some tobacco companies and the cannabis industry. He cited news reports on tobacco companies investing in marijuana as cigarette sales decline.
He downplayed the fiscal impact of marijuana legalization. In states that legalized marijuana, he said none have reported revenues accounting for more than 1% of their total budgets.
There are regulatory failures, Jones continued. In addition to the lack of potency caps, the black markets have continued to maintain a presence. There is also increased access for minors, he said.
That's why Jones and Smart Approaches to Marijuana view decriminalization as the best approach. He acknowledged that there is systemic racism and a need for criminal justice reform. But he questioned again whether marijuana legalization would deliver the reform advocates desire.
"Is it helping or not, or is it being used to introduce a new industry?" he said.