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Many unanswered questions on how to legalize marijuana in New York

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is set to release details of a plan to make recreational marijuana legal in New York state when he outlines his budget proposal later this month. Even the governor concedes, though, that there are many unanswered questions about how to proceed.

Cuomo, who less than two years ago called marijuana a “gateway drug,” said he still has some questions and concerns about legalizing the drug for recreational use. But he said he’s working with a panel of experts, including law enforcement and health officials who have determined it can be done safely and that the “benefits outweigh the risks.”

The governor said his position also has been influenced by neighboring states that have legalized marijuana or are in the process of doing so.

“You’ll just force people to drive to Massachusetts or drive to New Jersey and then come back into this state and use it in this state,” Cuomo said.

The governor said he’s working out many of the details right now on how to implement the program, including the age requirement to gain access to the drug.

“How old? How many stores? How much marijuana do you sell to a person? What are the tax revenues?” Cuomo said. “The devil is in the details.”

There are many ideas on how to best use the revenue from the sale of marijuana, including one to help fix New York City’s subways.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes is sponsoring a bill that she said would help right the wrongs created by the decades of marijuana prohibition. Peoples-Stokes, who is African-American, said arrests for using the drug have fallen disproportionately on black and Hispanic New Yorkers, while white residents have rarely been punished.

Her measure, which is sponsored by Sen. Liz Krueger in the state Senate, would dedicate 50 percent of revenues raised from taxing marijuana sales to a Community Grant Reinvestment Fund, directed at neighborhoods most affected by prohibition. It would fund programs like job training, after-school activities and re-entry programs for people coming out of prison.

Peoples-Stokes said it’s very important that legalization of marijuana include reparations for communities most negatively affected.

“It’s critical,” she said.

She said it will save the state money because fewer people will be in prison on minor drug charges and will instead be able to be home to take care of their families.

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who chairs the Health Committee, sponsored the law to implement medical marijuana in New York a few years ago. He supports legalizing the recreational use of the drug.

Gottfried said he does not necessarily back dedicating sales tax revenues to a specific fund, though he does want to end inequities in the state’s criminal justice system over past enforcement of the prohibition of the drug.

“One reasons why I hate the term ‘recreational use’ is that this is not about people having a good time at parties,” he said. “This is about undoing and preventing the damage that our prohibition system does.”

Gottfried said he’d like to see past criminal records for marijuana-related convictions erased. 

He credited Cuomo and his staff for reaching out to supporters and stakeholders, like marijuana-growing businesses, to get ideas on how to craft the bill. Gottfried said he does not want to see sales and distribution of the drug come under the control of big businesses, with existing distributors of medical marijuana having a greater influence than smaller startup companies.

He also supports allowing New Yorkers to grow a limited amount of marijuana at home.

“In some product areas, we do allow home production. If you want to brew beer or wine in your basement, you’re free to do that,” Gottfried said. “Just don’t sell it to your neighbors.”

Not everyone is in favor of legalizing marijuana in New York.

The New York State Association of County Health Officials issued a statement, saying they have “serious concerns” and urging that legalization be approached “thoughtfully and with extreme caution.”

The association said no one younger than 21 should be permitted to use the drug, and any new rules should fall under the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act to ensure children and other vulnerable populations are not exposed to marijuana use or secondhand smoke.

The group also wants toxicology studies conducted to set standards for impaired driving under the use of the drug. The health officials said they are already dealing with the devastation from opioid abuse and do not want to see the state inadvertently create another public health crisis.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.