Pubdate: Thu, 01 Apr 2021
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2021 The New York Times Company
Author: Luis Ferre-Sadurni


After years of stalled attempts, New York State has legalized the use
of recreational marijuana, enacting a robust program that will
reinvest millions of dollars of tax revenues from cannabis in minority
communities ravaged by the decades-long war on drugs.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the cannabis legislation on Wednesday, a
day after the State Legislature passed the bill following hours of
debate among lawmakers in Albany.

New York became the 15th state to legalize the recreational use of
cannabis, positioning itself to quickly become one of the largest
markets of legal cannabis in the nation and one of the few states
where legalization is directly tied to economic and racial equity.

Previous attempts to legalize marijuana were stymied over
disagreements on how the tax revenue from sales would be distributed.
Democratic lawmakers, especially those who are nonwhite, insisted that
a large portion of the money be earmarked for communities where Black
and Latino people have been arrested on marijuana charges in
disproportionate numbers; the governor wanted to retain more control
over how the money was spent.

The lawmakers prevailed. Forty percent of the tax revenue from pot
sales will be steered to those communities, and people convicted of
marijuana-related offenses that are no longer criminalized will have
their records automatically expunged. The law also seeks to allow
people with past convictions and those involved in the illicit
cannabis market to participate in the new legal market.

"Unlike any other state in America, this legislation is intentional
about equity," Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, the Democratic majority
leader in the Assembly who sponsored the bill, said on the floor of
the lower chamber. "Equity is not a second thought, it's the first
one, and it needs to be, because the people who paid the price for
this war on drugs have lost so much."

Certain parts of the law went into effect immediately.

Individuals are now allowed to possess up to three ounces of cannabis
for recreational purposes or 24 grams of concentrated forms of the
drug, such as oils.

New Yorkers are permitted to smoke cannabis in public wherever smoking
tobacco is allowed, though localities and a new state agency could
create regulations to more strictly control smoking cannabis in
public. Smoking cannabis, however, is not permitted in schools,
workplaces or inside a car. In New York City, it will be banned in
parks, beaches, boardwalks, pedestrian plazas and playgrounds, where
tobacco smoking is banned. Smoking is generally permitted on sidewalks
in the city.

Other changes will go into effect in the coming months when officials
create the regulatory framework that will govern every aspect of a
brand-new, highly regulated market.

People, for example, will eventually be able to have cannabis
delivered to their homes, use cannabis products at lounge-like
"consumption sites" and cultivate up to six plants at home for
personal use. Dispensaries won't open until more than a year from now,
and localities could opt out of allowing such businesses.

The recreational market is expected to eventually generate $350
million in yearly tax revenue and billions of dollars in annual sales.
New businesses and thousands of new jobs are on tap for the
cultivation, distribution and sale of the drug.

The new law was a significant win for the medical cannabis industry,
which has spent millions of dollars lobbying to make the state's
program less restrictive ever since Mr. Cuomo signed legislation
legalizing the drug for medical purposes in 2014.

It will significantly expand the medical cannabis program and bring in
new patients.

Under the law, patients would no longer be restricted from smoking
cannabis flower, which is more affordable. They could also receive up
to a 60-day supply of cannabis, an expansion of the current 30-day

Previously, a small number of diseases qualified patients for medical
marijuana use, including AIDS, cancer and epilepsy. Now, practitioners
will have the discretion to recommend medical marijuana for any condition.

Some of the companies had entered New York's medical market in the
hopes of obtaining a foothold in the state to eventually sell
recreational cannabis. That bet paid off: The state's medical cannabis
operators, capped at 10 companies, will be able to enter the more
lucrative recreational market by paying a one-time fee.

The companies, many of which are multistate operators and have years
of experience in the business, will effectively have a leg up and help
jump start the state's recreational market.

The Democratic Party had made legalizing marijuana an annual priority
since 2018 after wrestling control of the Legislature away from
Republicans, who had stalled proposed legislation after it was first
introduced in 2013.

Efforts fell apart each year, mostly because of disagreements with Mr.
Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, even as neighboring states, including New
Jersey, legalized the drug.

This year, however, Mr. Cuomo's leverage dwindled as numerous members
of his party called on him to resign following multiple sexual
harassment allegations. Lawmakers and lobbyists were surprised by the
number of concessions that Mr. Cuomo, not known for easily
compromising, made in order to secure a policy win amid a worsening
political crisis, pushing the bill over the finish line.

"This is a historic day in New York, one that rights the wrongs of the
past by putting an end to harsh prison sentences, embraces an industry
that will grow the Empire State's economy, and prioritizes
marginalized communities so those that have suffered the most will be
the first to reap the benefits," Mr. Cuomo said in a statement.

Republican lawmakers opposed the legislation, echoing safety and
health concerns from parent teacher associations and law enforcement
groups, such as a potential influx of people driving under the
influence of marijuana.

Some Republicans said that the new taxes on pot sales and the reduced
penalties on illegal sales would backfire, keeping the price of legal
cannabis high and allowing the illicit market to thrive.

"This deal legalizing marijuana is the result of closed-door
discussions between leaders of one political party and a governor who
is engulfed in scandal," said Rob Ortt, the Republican leader in the
Senate. "The outcome of these partisan negotiations is a deeply flawed
piece of legislation that will hurt the health and safety of New Yorkers."

The state's recreational cannabis program will be run by two new
government entities: the Cannabis Control Board, which will craft new
regulations, and the Office of Cannabis Management, which will
implement the regulations.

They will be in charge of creating and allocating licenses for
businesses seeking to enter any facet of the supply chain, from the
farming of cannabis to the processing of the plant into edibles,
concentrates and smokable products.

There will be licenses for distributors who would sell cannabis
wholesale to retailers, including dispensaries where individuals will
be able to buy cannabis products and the "consumption sites" where
people will be allowed to smoke or ingest the products.

The tiered system of licenses is meant to create a division among
those who produce, wholesale and retail the products, like in the
alcohol market. Most businesses would only be allowed to have one type
of license to keep a few players from consolidating the entire market.
Most dispensaries, for example, will not be able to also grow and
distribute cannabis.

But that will not apply to the state's few but influential medical
cannabis corporations, which currently operate about 40 dispensaries
statewide. Those companies will be allowed to keep their operations
vertically integrated, meaning they could cultivate, process and sell

Supporters said the new law has guardrails to prevent a few companies
from dominating the market and to make sure that wealthy white
investors do not reap most of the benefits, which critics say is what
has happened in other states.

Half of business licenses, for example, are supposed to be issued to
"social equity applicants." That includes people from communities with
high rates of marijuana enforcement, as well as businesses owned by
women and minorities, distressed farmers and disabled veterans.
Priority will also be given to applicants who have a marijuana-related
conviction, or a close relative with such a conviction.

"I cannot be more proud to cast my vote to end the failed policies of
marijuana prohibition in our state and begin the process of building a
fair and inclusive legal market for adult use cannabis," State Senator
Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan who sponsored the bill in the
upper chamber, said in the State Capitol. "It has been a long road to
get here, but it will be worth the wait."

The Cannabis Control Board will conduct a review two years after the
first retail sale of cannabis to study the market share in the
industry and make licensing adjustments to ensure equity. And the
medical cannabis firms would be limited to only eight dispensaries

The bill passed the State Senate on Tuesday by a vote of 40 to 23 and
the Assembly by a vote of 94 to 56, with all Republicans and about a
dozen Democrats voting against the bill.

"This law comprehensively addresses the harms of overcriminalization
and establishes one of the most ambitious marijuana legalization
programs in the nation," said Melissa Moore, the state director of the
Drug Policy Alliance, a national advocacy organization.

"Through this sweeping legislation, New York is delivering reforms
that place community reinvestment, social equity, and justice at the
core of the law."
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