Soda Bad, Pot Okay? Pondering New York’s New Legal Paradigm

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In New York City, buying a 24 ounce soda was fine a month ago. Openly possessing marijuana was not. Since then, a lot has changed. Mayor Michael Bloombergunveiled a plan to ban the sale of sugary drinkers larger than 16 ounces; Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed a bill, with Bloomberg’s support, to reduce the charge for open possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a violation.

Rather than editorialize on either plan (there has been a lot of that already), I want to point out some surprising connections between the two. Despite the different motivations behind them (public health; curtailing the negative impact of stop and frisk policies), they share supporters and detractors. They both bring up politically-charged questions of freedom, personal accountability, and the role of the government in prescribing and proscribing individual behavior. Each will have outsize consequences in Harlem.

Lovers and Haters

Mayor Bloomberg is a moderate Republican, which in these polarized times translates roughly to “liberal”. Governor Cuomo is a plain, old Democrat. Chirag Raval, a former New York Life graduate fellow at the Colin Powell Center, hasnoted on this blog that Tea Party libertarians “criticize as unconstitutional the elements of the [anti-snack food] campaign they perceive to impinge upon individual freedoms.”

Increasingly in control of the Republican party, shouldn’t the libertarian Tea Party support the decriminalization of marijuana for those same reasons? If so, why is the GOP faction in the New York Senate forming the major opposition to Cuomo’s bill?

If liberals support Bloomberg’s criminalizing vices like huge sodas, shouldn’t they want him to crack down even more on marijuana possession than he has in the past (especially given his determination to ban smoking cigarettes within a mile of anyone with nostrils)?

Whose Freedom, Whose Ideology?

Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, it seems odd that you would either support or oppose both of these measures. One restricts personal choice, the other expands it, albeit for different reasons.

The timely juxtaposition highlights a much ignored reality of politics and policy: Few are those who adhere strictly to one belief system. Flexibility is the norm. There are those who are willing to criminalize the sale of 20 oz sodas in the interest of reducing the levels of heat disease in the city, and okay with decriminalizing marijuana possession if it improves community-police relations and saves the City effort and money.

In the end, a policy’s results often outweigh the ideology that approves or condemns it.

Impact in Harlem

What strikes me most about these proposed legal reversals is that each will have a dramatic impact on residents of Harlem and other low-income areas of New York City.

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East and Central Harlem have the highest rates of fatal heart disease in the City; obesity and diabetes are closely connected to this growing trend. (Note that a New York Times reporter headed to the McDonald’s on 125th St for comments on the soda ban.)

Minorities make up 94 percent of marijuana possession convictions in New York, a large percentage of those happen in Harlem. The Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building on 125th St was the site of an anti-stop and frisk rally last fall.

The Cuomo-proposed, Bloomberg-supported bill (which closes a loophole that allows police to empty the pockets of those they stop, rendering marijuana they may have concealed visible and thus illegal) will change day-to-day life for low-income New Yorkers more than for those living in SoHo or the Upper East Side.

Okay, So What?

I’m offering observations, not opinions, and hope this post will spark a dialogue among you readers. So please share you comments in the space below, or let me know what you think on Twitter, or on the Colin Powell Center Facebook page! —Alex Davies

Alex Davies is communications coordinator for the Colin Powell Center. Read more about him and our other contributors here.

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