After the state of New York approved legislation to legalize recreational marijuana in 2021, adults may now smoke it wherever they can smoke tobacco. As a result, the smell of weed has taken over New York.
Imagine you’re in the heart of New York City—for example, on the steps of Madison Square Garden. One of the very first things you would notice there, no matter the time of day or the weather, would be the pungent aroma of burning reefer. This would also be the case if you found yourself at the entrance to the Q train at Union Square, or at a chessboard in Washington Square Park, or under some scaffolding erected on any random block in SoHo. Smelling cannabis has become an inescapable feature of living in (or visiting) the city, an emblem of life in New York akin to sipping a crème at a café table in Paris or strolling through Rome eating a gelato. In some parts of Midtown, weed aromas pump through the streets like those bizarre plumes of steam that blow continuously from orange-striped tubes at intersections.
Not so long ago, the United States took a draconian approach to marijuana. As recently as 2017, New York City alone recorded more than 18,000 arrests for weed possession, down from a peak of more than 50,000 in 2011. Some 93 percent of those 2017 arrests were for possession in public view or public consumption. In 2021, New York State approved legislation to legalize recreational marijuana, and adults may now smoke it wherever they can smoke tobacco. By the end of 2022, the grand total of marijuana arrests and summonses—in this city of 8.5 million inhabitants—had fallen to 179. It is an unmistakably good thing that New York, along with much of American society, has abandoned the puritanical War on Drugs absolutism that sought to prevent otherwise law-abiding adults from ever getting high on pain of criminal prosecution. Anti-marijuana laws from a previous, stricter era were not only hypocritical and ineffective—everyone who wanted to smoke weed could still do so; they were enforced to an extremely unequal measure, falling much harder on Black and Latino citizens. The old regime was clearly unsustainable.
But too much of a good thing can pose an entirely new set of problems, and two competing truths often exist simultaneously. The computer scientists Dylan Hadfield-Menell and Simon Zhuang argue that optimizing the pursuit of any given goal will lead to unanticipated consequences, including the achievement of ends that are antithetical to the original objective. In a recent podcast, the physicist Max Tegmark provided a concrete example of this idea. Pretend you’ve programmed a car to drive from Boston to New York City by telling it to go as southward as physically possible. Eventually, it will arrive in Manhattan, but without any further steps to redirect or halt its movement, it will inevitably keep going all the way to Florida. Tegmark says that the principle can be applied to the development of artificial intelligence. It can also help make sense of why I can’t step outside without smelling marijuana.
The desire to correct past wrongs hasn’t just resulted in marijuana smoking becoming permissible in most areas where tobacco smoking is allowed. Because of a larger disinclination toward any punitiveness at all, blunt-smoking can now be observed even where cigarettes are considered inappropriate or offensive. Police aren’t enforcing the law where it still holds. It is progress that people are no longer facing jail time for personal weed possession; it does not follow, however, that Americans should accept a total erosion of the etiquette around public consumption in shared and non-designated spaces. The car has traveled way past New York City and is on a ferry to Patagonia.
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According to the World’s Wealthiest Cities Report 2023, New York is the world’s richest city with over 3 Lakh millionaires.