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New York set to legalize marijuana for adult, recreational use after Cuomo, lawmakers strike deal

Mar 28, 2021

Credit wnyc.org

New York will legalize marijuana for adult, recreational use after Democrats struck a deal on the issue Saturday, with a vote expected in the next week from the state Legislature.

The agreement is the result of years of negotiations between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature in New York, which will become the 16th state to approve legalization.

Lead sponsors Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, and State Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, cheered the agreement in statements Saturday evening.

"The final bill provides long awaited marijuana justice for New Yorkers, and makes significant steps and investments to begin to address the generational devastation caused by marijuana prohibition and mass incarceration,” Peoples-Stokes said.

"My goal in carrying this legislation has always been to end the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana prohibition that has taken such a toll on communities of color across our state, and to use the economic windfall of legalization to help heal and repair those same communities," Krueger said.

"I believe we have achieved that in this bill, as well as addressing the concerns and input of stakeholders across the board."

The agreement will create a new system for the state to license and regulate cannabis cultivators and retailers, and fully legalize the drug for adult, recreational use.

The bill would, among other things:

Create an Office of Cannabis Management at the state level and a Cannabis Control Board to promulgate regulations related to the drug. Cuomo would have three appointments to the board, including the chairperson, while the Legislature would have two.

Set a 13% tax rate on retail sales of cannabis products. Of that, 9% of the revenue would go to the state, while 4% would be directed to localities. Of the 4% directed to localities, counties would receive a quarter of that revenue, while the municipality would receive the remainder.

Permit possession of three ounces of the drug, and 24 grams of concentrate, outside the home. Five pounds is allowed to be kept at home, but must be stored away from children.

Redefine criminal penalties for possession. Possessing more than three ounces of the drug, or drug grams of concentrate, outside the home would constitute a misdemeanor charge. The most stringent charge would be a class D felony for possession of more than 10 pounds of the drug, or concentrated products weighing more than four pounds. 

Allow individuals to grow up to six marijuana plants at home. Half of them would have to be immature, and households would be capped at 12 plants. 

Authorize a controlled research study into methodologies and technologies that could detect when somebody’s driving while impaired by a cannabis product.

Set aside funding for local law enforcement agencies to hire and train drug recognition experts, who would be able to recognize when somebody’s driving while impaired by the drug. Driving under the influence of marijuana would still be illegal.

Give municipalities, excluding counties, the ability to opt out of allowing retail sales or state-approved consumption sites. The deadline to do this would be Dec. 31, 2021.

Expand the list of medical conditions that qualify for medical marijuana, and provide some flexibility for practitioners to prescribe the drug for conditions that aren’t specifically listed.

Direct 40% of the total state tax revenue from cannabis to a grant program for communities historically disproportionately impacted by prohibition. Another 40% would go toward the state’s schools, with the remainder set aside for drug treatment and education.

Automatically expunge or re-sentence individuals convicted on criminal charges related to marijuana that would be repealed under the legislation.

Allow for the creation of on-site consumption sites, sort of like how tasting rooms work with alcohol.

Retail sales of marijuana for adult, recreational use won’t start in New York for several months. That’s to give the industry time to grow — literally. Companies will have to develop their own infrastructure, grow cannabis plants, and develop products for retailers.

It will also depend on the speed of the state’s recreational rollout. The bill would allow for the creation of a Cannabis Control Board, which would have sole discretion to license entities and promulgate regulations.

Because of the federal prohibition on marijuana, retailers in New York can’t import cannabis products to sell in the meantime. That cross-border transportation is still illegal.

And despite the classic nickname of the drug — “weed” — the plant takes several weeks to grow from a clipping to a mature plant that can be harvested. From there, the flower of the plant can either be used in a smokeable form or processed for other products, like edibles.

The bill would also allow the state to limit the number of cannabis retailers and cultivators in an effort to prevent the new market from becoming oversaturated. That would be at the discretion of the Cannabis Control Board.

For those who’ve followed the issue of recreational cannabis in New York, Saturday’s announcement may have been a bit of a surprise.

When Democrats took control of the state Legislature in 2019, advocates for legalization saw new hope for an issue that had struggled to gain traction in New York. But lawmakers failed to strike a deal that year, and the COVID-19 pandemic derailed talks last year.

But this year, there were new incentives for lawmakers to strike a deal on the drug.

For one, the tax revenue from the marijuana industry was particularly appealing after the pandemic decimated the state’s economy. New York is facing a multibillion deficit between this year and next. 

And New Jersey had also struck a deal to legalize marijuana in December, putting the pressure on New York to either do the same, or lose sales across the river. New Yorkers already drive to Massachusetts to buy the drug, and Vermont has cleared the way for legalization as well.

In a development that put negotiations on legalization in jeopardy, Democrats had reached a conflict on legalization in recent weeks over the issue of driving while impaired. 

There’s currently no easy or inexpensive way to detect when someone has used marijuana. There are some roadside tests, but they come at a cost, and some have questioned their accuracy. Blood results sent to a lab would take days, if not weeks.

New York will now work with institutions of higher education to study how members of law enforcement may be able to accurately and efficiently detect when someone’s driving while impaired by the drug. 

After that research is done, the state Department of Health will be able to create and implement regulations one testing for the drug in drivers. 

The legislation is expected to be approved by the state Legislature next week and receive approval from Cuomo, whose office was involved in negotiations on the deal.

Dan Clark is host and producer at New York NOW.