New York has become the 16th state in the U.S. to legalize marijuana after the state Senate and Assembly both voted to approve the bill on Tuesday -- and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed it into law the following day.
State lawmakers initially reached a deal over the weekend to allow sales of the drug for recreational use. The Senate passed the sweeping legislation by a 40-23 vote, and the Assembly approved it later in the night 100-49.
"For too long the prohibition of cannabis disproportionately targets communities of color with harsh prison sentences and after years of hard work, this landmark legislation provides justice for long-marginalized communities, embraces a new industry that will grow the economy, and establishes substantial safety guards for hte public," Cuomo said in a statement after the bill initially passed. "New York has a storied history off being the progressive capital of the nation, and this important legislation will once again carry on that legacy."
The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act will expand the state's existing medical marijuana program and set up a licensing and taxation system for recreational sales. It will also legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, launch programs to help communities that bore the brunt of the national and state drug war and eventually allow recreational marijuana sales to people over the age of 21.
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In a unique provision, cannabis can be smoked in public, including on sidewalks. No other state allows that, said Paul Armentano, deputy director of pro-legalization group NORML. Still, New Yorkers can’t smoke or vape marijuana in locations where smoking is prohibited by state law, including workplaces, indoor bars and restaurants and within 100 feet of a school. And stricter local smoking rules apply: New York City bans smoking in parks and on beaches, for instance.
With Cuomo's signature, the law now establishes the Office of Cannabis Management to implement a comprehensive regulatory framework that covers medical, adult-use and cannabinoid hemp. It also expands New York State's existing medical marijuana and cannabinoid hemp programs. The legislation provides licensing for marijuana producers, distributors, retailers, and other actors in the cannabis market, and creates a social and economic equity program to assist individuals disproportionately impacted by cannabis enforcement that want to participate in the industry.
"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," Cuomo said in a statement after he signed the bill. "This was one of my top priorities in this year's State of the State agenda and I'm proud these comprehensive reforms address and balance the social equity, safety and economic impacts of legal adult-use cannabis. I thank both the Leader and the Speaker, and the tireless advocacy of so many for helping make today's historic day possible."
It has taken years for the state's lawmakers to come to a consensus on how to legalize recreational marijuana in New York. Democrats, who now wield a veto-proof majority in the state Legislature, have made passing it a priority this year, and Gov. Cuomo’s administration has estimated legalization could eventually bring the state about $300 million annually. Additionally, there is the potential for this new industry to create 30,000 to 60,000 new jobs across the State.
The trade publication Marijuana Business Daily estimates New York could become the East Coast’s largest recreational marijuana market — generating a potential $2.3 billion in annual sales by its fourth year.
“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,” Sen. Liz Krueger, Senate sponsor of the bill and chair of the Senate’s finance committee, said.
The legislation sets up a licensing process for the delivery of cannabis products to customers. Individual New Yorkers could grow up to three mature and three immature plants for personal consumption, and local governments could opt out of retail sales.
The legislation takes effect immediately, though sales won't start until New York sets up rules and a proposed cannabis board. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes estimated last week it could take 18 months to two years for sales to start. Once those have been established, consumers could then get marijuana deliveries or visit new social lounges where they could consume marijuana.
Adam Goers, a vice president of Columbia Care, a New York medical marijuana provider that’s interested in getting into the recreational market, said New York’s proposed system would “ensure newcomers have a crack at the marketplace” alongside the state’s existing medical marijuana providers.
“There’s a big pie in which a lot of different folks are going to be able to be a part of it,” Goers said.
New York would set a 9% sales tax on cannabis, plus an additional 4% tax split between the county and local government. It would also impose an additional tax based on the level of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, ranging from 0.5 cents per milligram for flower to 3 cents per milligram for edibles.
New York would eliminate penalties for possession of less than three ounces of cannabis (that part will take effect immediately), and automatically expunge records of people with past convictions for marijuana-related offenses that would no longer be criminalized. That’s a step beyond a 2019 law that expunged many past convictions for marijuana possession and reduced the penalty for possessing small amounts.
And New York would provide loans, grants and incubator programs to encourage participation in the cannabis industry by people from minority communities, as well as small farmers, women and disabled veterans.
Criminal justice reform groups and advocates for minority communities where pot was policed hardest have hailed the state’s bill as particularly sweeping: New York would set a target of ensuring 50% of marijuana licenses go to underrepresented communities. The legislation also provides protections for people from being discriminated for marijuana use in public housing, schools and colleges and the workplace.
“We have literally destroyed the lives of multiple thousands of people,” Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes said. “That’s what’s good about this legislation.... We’re going to turn around the lives of some of those people and help them to be able to take care of themselves, their families and their communities.”
Proponents have said the move could create thousands of jobs and begin to address the racial injustice of a decades-long drug war that disproportionately targeted minority and poor communities.
“Police, prosecutors, child services and ICE have used criminalization as a weapon against them, and the impact this bill will have on the lives of our oversurveiled clients cannot be overstated,” Alice Fontier, managing director of Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, said in a statement Saturday.
Some other states that have legalized recreational marijuana have struggled to address the inequities that the drug wars have wrought.
Three years after Massachusetts voters passed a ballot initiative making recreational cannabis legal in the state, Black entrepreneurs complained in 2019 that all but two of Massachusetts’ 184 marijuana business licenses had been issued to white operators.
California voters legalized recreational marijuana sales in 2016 as well and invited people to petition to have old marijuana convictions expunged or reduced. But relatively few people took advantage of the provision initially.
Criminal justice reform advocates said New York's bill avoids that problem by setting up a process for marijuana convictions to be automatically expunged.
“We are very happy that the bill includes automatic expungement. It’s integral to addressing past harms,” said Emma Goodman, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society.
Melissa Moore, the Drug Policy Alliance’s director for New York state, said the bill "really puts a nail in the coffin of the drug war that’s been so devastating to communities across New York, and puts in place comprehensive policies that are really grounded in community reinvestment.”
At least 15 other states already allow residents to buy marijuana for recreational and not just medical use. Cuomo has pointed to growing acceptance of legalization in the Northeast, including in Massachusetts, Maine and most recently, New Jersey.
New York does not have a statewide referendum process as California and Massachusetts do, so only the Legislature has the power to legalize recreational marijuana, as it did with same-sex marriage in 2011.
Past efforts to legalize recreational use have been hurt by a lack of support from suburban Democrats, disagreements over how to distribute marijuana sales tax revenue and questions over how to address drivers suspected of driving high.
It also has run into opposition from law enforcement, school and community advocates, who warn legalization would further strain a health care system already overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic and send mixed messages to young people.
“We are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the serious crisis of youth vaping and the continuing opioid epidemic, this harmful legislation is counterintuitive,” said an open letter signed by the Medical Society of the State of NY, New York State Parent Teacher Association, New York Sheriff’s Association and several other organizations March 11.
Republicans and a handful of Democrats who opposed legalization said Tuesday they remain concerned that the bill will tie law enforcement’s hands and send the message to children that the drug is OK. Assemblymember Mike Lawler, of Rockland County, said he’s skeptical that marijuana sales will bring in nearly as much revenue as Cuomo’s administration projects: “We talk about revenue, other states have fallen far short of projections.”
“For 27 years in the military, I fought drugs, every single year... What will we do to our children here?” Republican state Rep. John Lemondes Jr., a retired Army colonel, asked as lawmakers debated Tuesday night.
Democratic Rep. Kwame Mamdani of Queens said that even though some people insist that marijuana can lead people to become burdens to society, “Smoking marijuana can also lead to becoming an elected official.”
New York officials plan to launch an education and prevention campaign aimed at reducing the risk of cannabis among school-aged children, and schools could get grants for anti-vaping and drug prevention and awareness programs.
And the state will also launch a study due by Dec. 31, 2022, that examines the extent that cannabis impairs driving, and whether it depends on factors like time and metabolism.
A police officer can still use the odor of burnt cannabis as a reason to suspect a driver is intoxicated, but the officer couldn’t use that smell alone as justification for searching a car for contraband.
The bill also sets aside revenues to cover the costs of everything from regulating marijuana, to substance abuse prevention. State police could also get funding to hire and train more so-called “drug recognition experts.”
But there’s no evidence that drug recognition experts can tell whether someone is high or not, according to R. Lorraine Collins, a psychologist and professor of community health and health behavior at the University at Buffalo. Collins was appointed to Cuomo’s 2018 working group tasked with drafting cannabis regulations.
“I think it’s very important that we approach that challenge using science and research and not wishes or unsubstantiated claims,” Collins said.
Collins pointed to a 2020 report from the American Civil Liberties Union that found that Blacks are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession compared to Whites, based on FBI statistics.
“Every New Yorker should be concerned about how these laws will be implemented or how those ways of examining drivers will be implemented in different communities,” Collins said. “It’s not likely to be equal.”
The bill allows cities, towns and villages to opt out of allowing adult-use cannabis retail dispensaries or on-site consumption licenses by passing a local law by Dec. 31, 2021 or nine months after the effective date of the legislation. They cannot opt out of legalization.
One Long Island town has already stated that they will choose to opt out. Freeport Mayor Robert Kennedy said he will ask the village's board of trustees to "approve a 'opt out' resolution for the distribution, sale and manufacturing of marijuana" in the town.
Observers say New York’s move builds momentum for legalization efforts nationwide. Lawmakers in New Mexico returned for a special session Tuesday to tackle recreational marijuana, while Democratic lawmakers in Virginia are negotiating over a push to move up legalization to this summer.
To Andrew Farrior, a Black entrepreneur who plans to apply for a license, “the intention and the verbiage are great.” But he’s also wary.
Other states have made similar promises, but such intentions can get lost as legislation evolves into the nitty-gritty of regulation and actually issuing licenses, noted Farrior, the managing partner of Digital Venture Partners, which works on cannabis branding and produces a video series highlighting people of color in the cannabis industry. He wants to see more specifics on how New York’s plans for business incubators and other assistance for newcomers will actually provide them with access to financing.
“It’s exciting to see it, but history has shown us that it’s probably not going to be executed how they are selling it to us right now,” Farrior said.