Pubdate: Fri, 26 Mar 2021
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2021 The New York Times Company
Author: Luis Ferre-Sadurni


State lawmakers finalized a deal on Thursday to legalize recreational
marijuana in New York, paving the way for a potential $4.2 billion
industry that could create tens of thousands of jobs and become one of
the largest markets in the country.

Following several failed attempts, lawmakers in Albany struck an
agreement with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to legalize cannabis for adults 21
and older, a move that officials hope will help end years of racially
disproportionate policing that saw Black and Hispanic people arrested
on low-level marijuana charges far more frequently than white people.

The deal would allow delivery of the drug and permit club-like lounges
or "consumption sites" where marijuana, but not alcohol, could be
consumed, according to details obtained by The New York Times. It
would also allow a person to cultivate up to six marijuana plants at
home, indoors or outdoors, for personal use.

If approved, the first sales of legal marijuana are likely more than a
year away: Officials must first face the daunting task of writing the
complex rules that will control a highly regulated market, from the
regulation of wholesalers and dispensaries, to the allocation of
cultivating and retail licenses, to the creation of new taxes and a
five-member control board that would oversee the industry.

The deal was crafted with an intense focus on making amends in
communities impacted by the decades-long war on drugs. Millions of
dollars in tax revenue from cannabis sales would be reinvested in
minority communities each year, and a sizable portion of business
licenses would be reserved for minority business owners.

"A percentage of revenue that is raised will get invested into the
communities where the people who suffered mass incarceration come from
and still live in many cases," said Assemblywoman Crystal D.
Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat who has spearheaded the legalization effort
in the lower chamber for years. "For me this is a lot more than about
raising revenue: It's about investing in the lives of the people that
have been damaged."

The governor's office had previously estimated that legalizing
marijuana could generate about $350 million in yearly tax revenue once
the program was fully implemented, which could take years.

With New York following the lead of more than a dozen states in
legalizing recreational marijuana, Democratic lawmakers sought to
fashion their proposal on the best practices from other states, hoping
to make New York's program a national model.

The final language of the legislation was still being reviewed on
Thursday, but a bill could pass the Democratic-controlled State
Legislature as soon as next week, according to three people familiar
with the negotiations.

"When this bill is finally voted on and signed, New York will be able
to say we have finally undone damaging criminal justice laws that
accomplished nothing but ruining people's lives," said State Senator
Liz Krueger, a Democrat who led the negotiations in the upper chamber.
"We will finally be able to say we're going to have an industry for
cannabis that assures people who buy the product that they are buying
a legitimate product from legitimate companies."

The yearslong push to legalize recreational marijuana in New York, a
proposal that often found its momentum stalled by some political trip
wire, received an unexpected boost from Mr. Cuomo's recent political

Democrats began the year cautiously optimistic they would reach an
agreement. New Jersey had recently legalized the drug, putting
pressure on New York to follow suit, and the state was in dire need of
new tax revenue after the pandemic decimated state coffers.

For Democratic lawmakers, it was a matter of bridging the differences
between their marijuana bill and the governor's proposal, which he
unveiled earlier this year.

But the negotiations were thrown into question when multiple women
began accusing Mr. Cuomo of sexual harassment in late February. The
accusations, along with scrutiny over his handling of nursing homes
during the pandemic, engulfed his administration in scandal and left
his political future in the balance.

It turned out, however, that striking a deal to legalize cannabis
became a higher priority for Mr. Cuomo, as several lawmakers and
lobbyists surmised that the governor may have wanted to shift
attention away from his compounding crises. Marijuana legalization was
both a headline-grabbing issue and a policy measure popular with voters.

Nearly 60 percent of New York voters favor legalizing recreational
marijuana, according to a Siena College poll from March. Among Black
voters, a crucial part of Mr. Cuomo's electoral base, which he has
been appealing to recently, 71 percent said they favored

The marijuana proposal was initially being negotiated as part of the
state budget, which is due April 1, but lawmakers said it would be
fast-tracked to be voted on as a stand-alone piece of

Mr. Cuomo typically wields outsize influence during budget
negotiations, but as his scandals mounted and many members of his
party began calling for his resignation, the governor's stature diminished.

Democratic lawmakers suddenly had newfound leverage. They seized the
opportunity to press for their demands and negotiate a deal that more
closely mirrored their existing legislation, the Marijuana Regulation
and Taxation Act, or M.R.T.A., a proposal heralded by a coalition of
statewide activists.

Some veteran lobbyists and lawmakers, long accustomed to Mr. Cuomo's
strong-arm negotiating tactics, said they were astonished by the
torrent of concessions the governor was willing to make to reach an

The governor had previously insisted that the executive branch retain
most of the control over the tax revenue, while lawmakers insisted on
allocating a large portion of the proceeds to communities with high
marijuana enforcement rates.

Under the current deal, lawmakers appeared to get their wish: Forty
percent of most tax revenues would be reinvested in communities
disproportionately affected by the war on drugs; 40 percent would be
steered to public education; and the remaining 20 percent would go
toward drug treatment, prevention and education.

The retail sale of marijuana would be subject to a 9 percent state tax
and a 4 percent local tax.

The deal also includes "equity programs" that would provide loans,
grants and incubator programs for small farmers and people from
disproportionately impacted communities who want to enter the industry.

One goal of the legislation is for half of the program's business
licenses to go to so-called equity applicants, which could include
disabled veterans, minority- and women-owned businesses, and people
who have relatives with a marijuana conviction.

The proposal also would eliminate penalties for the possession of less
than three ounces of cannabis and allow for the automatic expungement
of records for people with convictions for illegal activities that are
no longer criminalized.

The legislation will seek to improve the state's existing medical
marijuana program, which for years has been criticized as too
restrictive. It would significantly expand the list of medical
conditions covered, as well as allow patients to smoke or vape medical
marijuana and to receive a 60-day supply of the drug, doubling the
current 30-day cap. Medical marijuana companies would also be allowed
to enter the recreational market.

Patients would be able to cultivate medical marijuana at home six
months after the bill is enacted. Those interested in cultivating
recreational marijuana at home would have to wait longer: 18 months
after the opening of the first adult-use dispensary, in order to give
the regulated market time to develop.

Staff members from the State Legislature met until late Tuesday night
and all day Wednesday as they scrambled to reach a consensus.

Among the final sticking points were safety issues related to a
potential increase in impaired driving if the drug were legalized, and
how the state's vehicle and traffic laws would address those concerns.
Many Republicans, who are in the minority in the Legislature, oppose
legalization, as do some physicians, law enforcement groups and the
state's parent teacher association.

Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat in his third term, had long opposed
legalization, describing weed as a "gateway drug" just a few years
ago. His position evolved in 2018 as neighboring states spearheaded
similar efforts and he faced a primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon, a
progressive who made marijuana legalization a pillar of her campaign.

The momentum accelerated when the Democratic Party regained full
control of the State Legislature in 2018 for the first time in a
decade and vowed to prioritize legalization. But attempts to do so
unraveled repeatedly.

In 2019, a deal crumbled following differences over how to spend tax
revenues from cannabis sales and dole out business licenses. In 2020,
the pandemic response derailed a renewed legalization effort.

The move to regulate the drug is partly aimed at absorbing the state's
illicit market for marijuana, a goal that would largely hinge on the
convenience and affordability of legal cannabis products.

The cannabis market in New York is currently estimated to be $4.6
billion and is expected to grow to $5.8 billion by 2027, according to
a recent study commissioned by the New York Medical Cannabis Industry
Association. The state could capture and tax $1.2 billion of that
market by 2023 and $4.2 billion by 2027, depending on the rules and
regulations, the study said.
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MAP posted-by: Matt