NY Legislators Pass Bill to Legalize Recreational Marijuana

New York’s Democratic-controlled legislature passed a bill on Tuesday evening to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults, following a long-fought agreement with embattled Governor Andrew Cuomo over the weekend.

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) — New York became the 15th U.S. state to legalize marijuana on Tuesday evening with the passage of a state bill that allows adult New Yorkers 21-and-older to legally possess up to 3 ounces of cannabis and grow up to six plants at home.

By a vote of 40-23, New York’s state Senate passed an amended version of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which eliminates penalties for possession of less than 3 ounces of cannabis, and seeks to advance racial justice by automatically expunging records of people with past convictions for marijuana-related offenses that would no longer be criminalized. 

Shortly after 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday evening, the assembly voted 100-49 to pass the bill, as well. The legislation now goes to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has pledged to sign it into law. 

Sponsored by Democrats Liz Krueger in the Senate and Crystal Peoples-Stokes in the Assembly, the bill has the support of Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Adult-use legalization, which allows adults 21 and older to possess up to 3 ounces of flower cannabis and 24 grams of cannabis concentrate, takes effect immediately, although regulated dispensary sales would not begin until New York establishes a proposed regulatory oversight board, the Office of Cannabis Management.

The state projects that it will collect up to $350 million in cannabis taxes and that legalization will create up to 60,000 jobs.

“New York’s program will not just talk the talk on racial justice, it will walk the walk: ending the racially disparate enforcement that was endemic to prohibition, automatically expunging the records of those who were caught up in the so-called ‘War on Drugs,’ and channeling 40% of the revenue back into the most hard-hit communities,” Krueger said during her Senate vote Tuesday.

“It also puts 20% of the revenue into drug treatment and education, and 40% into our public schools. Not to mention building a multi-billion dollar industry for New York that encourages small businesses and farms while balancing safety with economic growth,” the bill’s sponsor in the Senate said.

Assemblywoman Peoples-Stokes predicted it could take 18 months to two years for retail to begin.

The bill sets a 9% sales tax on cannabis, plus an additional 4% tax split between the county and local municipality, plus an additional tax based on the active THC content at 0.5 cents per milligram for flower, 0.8 cents per milligram for concentrated cannabis, and 3 cents per milligram for edibles.

“New York is a big domino but it’s just one more domino,” said Jonathan Caulkins, public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University and co-author of “Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

“Every state that falls, we’re marching towards national legalization. When national legalization happens, it will upset that apple cart for all the states,” Caulkins told Courthouse News on Monday. “There’s a chain of dominos, and this is a larger than average domino, but it’s just part of an ongoing movement.”

“All of the states are mostly doing it the same way. Everybody is embracing a for-profit industry model,” Caulkins said. “Whether it’s got this regulation and that regulation doesn’t change the fact we’re creating a for-profit industry to sell a dependence-inducing intoxicant. We’re sort of creating another tobacco industry.”

All cannabis taxes would be deposited in the New York state cannabis revenue fund, which will cover costs to administer the program and implement the law. The remaining tax revenue will be split three ways: 40% to education, 40 % to community grants reinvestment, and 20% to drug treatment and public education.

The legislation also includes a social and economic equity provisions that seek to encourage participation in the regulated cannabis industry by setting a goal of directing 50% of licenses to equity applicants from communities impacted by cannabis prohibition and to minority- and women-owned businesses.

“The really big deal is addressing the arrest records, including past arrests,” Caulkins noted. “The ambition of having 50% of licenses go to women or minorities or veterans or distressed farmer, that’s not the big the story…that’s going to help hundreds of people, whereas the eliminating of past criminal records in a state of the size of New York is hundreds of thousands of people.”

The bill also prohibits law enforcement from using the odor of marijuana as reasonable cause for search or arrests, which have contributed to extreme racial disparities in patterns of arrests and summonses issued in New York.

According to recent analysis of NYPD data by the Legal Aid Society, Black or Hispanic people accounted for 93% of those arrested for marijuana in New York City in 2020.

White people accounted for less than 5% of citywide arrests, while making up nearly half of the city’s population and have been shown to use marijuana at equal rates as other racial groups.

“When we decriminalized adult use of marijuana in 2019, the Assembly Majority knew that legalization had to be done the right way — in a way that would help not harm our communities that have been devastated by the state’s drug laws,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said. “The MRTA does not just legalize the adult use of marijuana, but it rights decades of disproportionately targeting people of color, ensures they are included in the legal marijuana industry and reinvests in education and in communities that have been harmed.”

The amended bill provides funding for training drug recognition officers and expands traffic safety protections, including the development of roadside testing technology.

The legislation allows for individual localities to opt out of retail sales at the city, town, and village level, by passing a local law by the end of the year, or nine months after the effective date of the legislation.

The bill does not allow municipalities to opt-out of adult-use legalization.

In 2014, the New York Senate passed a bill 49-10 to legalize access to medical marijuana.

Gov. Cuomo, who is currently embroiled in scandals involving allegations of sexual harassment and misreporting Covid-19 deaths at the nursing homes, has reiterated at most press conferences in the last month that the Legislature has been “very close” on legalizing marijuana.

In January, he announced his plans to legalize recreational cannabis this year, contending that it should have been passed years ago, even though he had opposed it in 2017, then referring to pot as a gateway drug and that “as of this date, I am unconvinced on recreational marijuana.”  

Cuomo’s 2018 gubernatorial primary challenger Cynthia Nixon campaigned on her support of legalizing marijuana in New York, calling it a “racial justice issue.”

By the end of 2018, Cuomo had changed his position and began advocating for legalization to reform laws, “once and for all,” that disproportionately target Black and minority communities. 

The following year, Cuomo signed off on legislation that decriminalized penalties for marijuana possession and expunged many past convictions for marijuana possession.

Subsequent legalization efforts were scuttled the year prior due to opposition from suburban Democrats in 2019 and abandoned the following year during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Earlier this year, New York’s neighboring state New Jersey became the 14th state to fully legalize cannabis after Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation last month that legalized recreational use for adults 21 years and older.

While the New Jersey bill also decriminalized possession of up to six ounces of marijuana and 170 grams of hashish, distributing large amounts of plant is still criminal under New Jersey law.

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