Arkady Bukh is not only a criminal defense lawyer in New York, he is also a member of marijuana advocacy group NORML. TestCountry interviewed him about his thoughts on marijuana legalization.
TestCountry: As a defense attorney who represents clients that have been charged with marijuana-related crimes, how much of an impact do believe legalization would have on your business?
Arkady Bukh: My New York criminal defense practice is focused on representing defendants accused of serious crimes on the federal and state level. New York is only now moving towards allowing residents to use medical marijuana, and even those laws are restrictive and many potential patients won’t be able to get the products they need to treat their serious medical conditions. Too many people are arrested for recreational and medicinal use of marijuana when there are virtually no proven risks or harmful effects of the drug and plenty of health benefits. I hope that the legalization of marijuana will put an end to clients coming to my office with their lives turned upside down because of this virtually harmless substance.
While I hope that marijuana legalization would completely eliminate the number of marijuana cases I would have to defend, I fear that if cannabis is legalized on the state but not the federal level that I will continue to have many clients coming to me for help when harassed by federal authorities. The official position of the Whitehouse remains the steadfast opposition of legalized marijuana and as long as that is the case, I will continue to provide vigorous representation of anyone who has been accused of offenses related to possession, possession with intent to sell, distribution, and growing marijuana plants
TestCountry: How would marijuana legalization affect the court system?
Arkady Bukh: The legalization of marijuana would free up the court’s resources to focus on more important legal matters. Collectively, state and local justice costs are around $7.6 billion or $104,000 per person arrested. The judicial and legal costs alone are $853 million. Judges and courts could spend their time on other cases to reduce backlogs and make justice move more swiftly if all of this time and money was not wasted on cases involving crimes with no victims.
State and federal authorities could also save millions of dollars a year if courts didn’t have to waste time on cases involving people who possess a little bit of marijuana. This money could help to reduce deficits and balance state budgets, or could be redirected towards other programs like drug treatment or providing more public defenders to create a fairer justice system.
TestCountry: How do you believe it will affect the prison system in terms of population?
Arkady Bukh: Legalizing marijuana would significantly reduce the number of people in prison. More than half of all inmates in federal prison are there for drug crimes, and close to 30 percent of all drug offenders are in prison because of marijuana. More people are in prison for marijuana offenses than for drug crimes involving cocaine, meth, crack, and heroin. All of these people could be doing productive things, working, taking care of their families and living their lives if they weren’t being supported by taxpayers in prison because of laws criminalizing marijuana. The legalization of marijuana could also help to reduce the racial disparities in the prison population. African Americans are around four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana than Caucasians although rates of use are about equal. In some states, it’s even worse and African Americans are around 10 to 15 times as likely to get arrested.
Our prisons are overcrowded and the costs of keeping people in prison for marijuana offenses is not justified at all by any potential harm to society.
TestCountry: What are the pros and cons of marijuana legalization?
Arkady Bukh: There are a lot of pros associated with the legalization of marijuana. People who are sick would get the medicine they need. People who want to use marijuana recreationally would be able to access it through legal channels. Around half of all Americans say they have tried marijuana already and there is no legitimate reason to make criminals out of half of the population.
Marijuana could be better regulated if it was legal. Stores and marijuana dispensaries can card kids and prevent young people from getting marijuana, while people who illegally sell marijuana don’t do that. Authorities can tax the sale of marijuana, generating much-needed revenue for public services.
The relationship between police and communities could be improved if people weren’t constantly afraid of being arrested for nonviolent drug crimes involving marijuana. The police could focus on more important criminal activities, and take steps to actually make the public safer. Fewer people imprisoned for marijuana offenses would mean less money spent on incarceration and on the criminal justice system. Fewer people would be burdened with criminal records that make it hard for them to get a job and take care of their family.
There may be some cons associated with marijuana legalization, but I don’t see many. Some have expressed concern that there will be an increase in accidents because of people driving under the influence of marijuana. However, the evidence is inconclusive on whether driving under the influence of marijuana is even very dangerous. It is far less dangerous than the risks of driving drunk. There is also little evidence to suggest a significant increase in marijuana use would occur if cannabis was made legal.
TestCountry: Do you believe it will eventually be legalized nationwide?
Arkady Bukh: I believe it will be difficult for marijuana to be legalized nationwide. Even progressive states like New York have been slow to move forward with legalization efforts for medical marijuana. The courts are not going to legalize marijuana because there’s no constitutional right to the drug and it would be difficult to imagine the federal government moving forward on legalization anytime soon, especially with the country and Washington D.C. so politically polarized. If states that have moved towards legalization show a lot of positive benefits and few or no negative impacts from allowing marijuana use, legalization efforts are likely to become more effective in states that make decisions based on factual evidence. Not all states do that; some make policy based on ideology. All of this means that it is going to be a very long time, if ever before every state jumps on the bandwagon.
TestCountry: How would legalizing marijuana for recreational use impact its standing as a medicinal compound?
Arkady Bukh: Some argue that pushing for the legalization of recreational marijuana could undermine the effectiveness of arguments that cannabis is a medical product. I don’t believe that is the case. Widespread legalization for recreational use could make it possible to more broadly collect data on how marijuana impacts users, which could allow for better research into the possibilities of the drug for medicinal use. Legalization for recreational purposes can also lead to more growth and development of different strains of cannabis plants that could have different medicinal benefits.
TestCountry: What are the biggest obstacles to having marijuana legalized nationwide and how can they be overcome?
Arkady Bukh: One big obstacle is political polarization. If legalization is treated as a partisan issue, this could significantly undermine the movement for legalization because then people become entrenched in the position of their political team. The legalization of marijuana should be an issue that crosses partisan lines and there should be a focus on getting broad support from people of all political persuasions. There is a libertarian, conservative, liberal and progressive argument to be made for legalization and all of these arguments should be made at the grassroots level to drive support and convince party leadership of all major political parties to get on board.
Another obstacle is false perceptions of the risks associated with legalization. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has done studies showing stoned driving isn’t nearly as dangerous as drunk driving but many people don’t hear about this data. The lack of real risks needs to be publicized so people can see that marijuana legalization is not going to present a danger to society. Most younger people know this, so in time, attitudes towards legalization will shift and more people will come on board.
Arkady Bukh is a criminal defense lawyer in New York, and he is also a member of marijuana advocacy group NORML. Bukh stays active in his community by performing pro bono services to constituents in New York who cannot afford representation. He is a member of the Russian American Bar Association, the Serbian American Bar Association, the Brooklyn Criminal Bar Association, the National Italian-American Bar Association, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys and he is committed to helping minority populations in New York.