Will New York legalize marijuana this year?

Posted 3/4/20

The legalization of recreational marijuana was an important goal last year for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and many legislators in the New York Senate and Assembly—but they couldn’t get it done. …

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Will New York legalize marijuana this year?


The legalization of recreational marijuana was an important goal last year for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and many legislators in the New York Senate and Assembly—but they couldn’t get it done. Lawmakers couldn’t agree on how to divvy up marijuana in a way that would most benefit the communities that suffered the most under the uneven enforcement of marijuana prohibition.

There is almost universal agreement that the lives of people of color were impacted much more negatively than white people because of the way prohibition laws were enforced. In his plan this year, Cuomo has included the possibility of local community impact grants.

Norman Birenbaum was appointed by Cuomo in December 2019 to become New York’s Director of Cannabis Programs. In a widely-quoted interview with USA Today, he said, “This is the right thing to do for public health and public safety. The reality of the situation is we have adult-use cannabis today. The problem is it’s not regulated, and it is provided through the illicit market.”

But it’s got to be done right, which includes keeping marijuana out of the hands of children and addressing other concerns. In order to learn from states where recreational marijuana is already legal, Cuomo will soon visit Massachusetts, Illinois and either California or Colorado to get input from the marijuana programs in those states.

Cuomo’s plan calls for taxing marijuana in three different ways. For cannabis flowers, the plan calls for a tax of $1 per dry weight gram. For cannabis trim, which is a part of the plant that doesn’t contain much THC, the tax would be 25 cents per dry weight gram. For wet cannabis, or cannabis that has not been dried, the tax is 14 cents per gram. Cuomo’s office projects that, eventually, the tax revenue from marijuana would be $300 million.

Some lawmakers and advocates had lobbied for a plan that sets aside a certain amount of the tax revenue to go to communities that have been harmed by the enforcement of past marijuana laws. Cuomo’s plan doesn’t do that, but it allows for the revenue to be spent on specific issues such as substance abuse and mental health treatment. There would also be some money for small business loans and cannabis research, but that might not be enough for some advocates.

To understand the inequity, consider the state’s population is 22 percent Latino or African-American. That same demographic makes up 75 percent of people imprisoned under mandatory minimums for drug crimes.

Sen. Liz Krueger, who introduced the Senate’s version of the marijuana bill, has said the Senate would not move forward with the bill unless there is a funding stream dedicated to communities of color.

Another goal of Cuomo’s is to come up with a plan that works together with neighboring states that have already adopted recreational marijuana, such as Massachusetts, or those that are likely to do so, such as New Jersey, where voters will vote on the question this fall.

Cuomo’s proposal would allow municipalities of 100,000 people or more to opt out of the legalization program. There were several large counties that said they would opt out had the bill passed last year.

Smaller towns and counties, such as Sullivan, would be able to pass local laws that restrict the hours of operation and the locations of recreational marijuana dispensaries. Last year, Sullivan County Legislator Alan Sorensen said he was opposed to marijuana sales in the county.

There are still obvious health concerns regarding recreational marijuana, including second-hand smoke and a negative impact on the developing brains of minors. But there are medical marijuana programs in 33 out of the 50 states where it is used to treat cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and many other conditions. It seems inevitable that it will be legalized in New York State, if not this year, then soon.

If and when it is legalized, some of the revenue from it should be specifically directed to communities of color who suffered injustice for many decades because of the unequal enforcement of marijuana prohibition laws.

Andrew Cuomo, marijuana


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