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New York Governor Signs Marijuana Legalization Bill, Hours After Lawmakers Put It On His Desk

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed a marijuana legalization bill into law on Wednesday, just hours after lawmakers sent it to his desk the night before.

“The bill creates automatic expungement of previous marijuana convictions that would now be legal,” the governor said. “This is a historic day—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.”

“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,” he said in a press release.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said the legislation “is a momentous first step in addressing the racial disparities caused by the war on drugs that has plagued our state for too long.”

“This effort was years in the making and we have finally achieved what many thought was impossible, a bill that legalizes marijuana while standing up for social equity, enhancing education and protecting public safety,” she said.

Here’s a summary of the main components of the 128-page New York marijuana legalization bill: 

-Adults 21 and older would be able to possess and purchase marijuana products from licensed retailers, which are expected to launch sometime in 2022.

-Effective immediately, there are no penalties for public possession of up to three ounces of cannabis or 24 grams of marijuana concentrates,

-Adults could also cultivate up to six plants for personal use, three of which could be mature. A maximum of 12 plants could be grown per household with more than one adult. Homegrow would not take effect until regulators set rules for it, and they would have a maximum of six months to do so for medical patients and must do so for adult-use consumers no later than 18 months after the first retail recreational sales begin. Once home cultivation becomes legal, people could store up to five pounds of cannabis at home.

-People with convictions for marijuana-related activity made legal under the legislation would have their records automatically expunged.

-Protections against discrimination in housing, educational access and parental rights would be instituted for people who consume cannabis or work in the marijuana industry.

-A system of licenses for commercial cultivators, processors, distributors, retailers, cooperatives and nurseries would be created, with a prohibition on vertical integration except for microbusinesses and existing medical cannabis operators.

-Social consumption sites and delivery services would be permitted.

-Individual jurisdictions would be allowed to opt out of allowing retailers or social consumption sites by the end of this year, but residents could seek to override such bans via a local referendum process.

-A new Office of Cannabis Management—an independent agency operating as part of the New York State Liquor Authority—would be responsible for regulating the recreational cannabis market as well as the existing medical marijuana and hemp programs and would be overseen by a five-member Cannabis Control Board. Three members would be appointed by the governor, and the Senate and Assembly would appoint one member each.

-The legislation sets a goal of having 50 percent of marijuana business licenses issued to social equity applicants, defined as people from “communities disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of cannabis prohibition” as well as minority- and women-owned businesses, disabled veterans and financially distressed farmers.

-Cannabis products would be subject to a state tax of nine percent, plus an additional four percent local tax that would be split between counties and cities/towns/villages, with 75 percent of the local earnings going to the municipalities and 25 percent to the counties. Marijuana distributors would also face a THC tax based on type of product, as follows: 0.5 cents per milligram for flower, 0.8 cents per milligram for concentrated cannabis and 3 cents per milligram for edibles.

-Tax revenue from marijuana sales would cover the costs of administering the program. After that, 40 percent of the remaining dollars would go to a community reinvestment fund, 40 percent would support the state’s public schools and 20 percent would fund drug treatment facilities and public education programs.

-Police could not use the odor of cannabis to justify searches.

-The State Department of Health would oversee a study of technologies for detecting cannabis-impaired driving, after which it could approve and certify the use of such a test. Additional funds for drug recognition experts also would be made available.

-Driving while impaired from marijuana would remain a misdemeanor despite early reports that lawmakers had settled on downgrading it to a violation.

-The state’s existing medical cannabis program would also be changed to expand the list of qualifying conditions and allow patients to smoke marijuana products. Patients could also obtain a 60-day, rather than 30-day, supply.

-Smokable hemp flower sales would be allowed.

-Current medical cannabis businesses could participate in the recreational market in exchange for licensing fees that will help to fund the social equity program.

“The legislature finds that existing marihuana laws have not been beneficial to the welfare of the general public,” the bill’s findings section states. “Existing laws have been ineffective in reducing or curbing marihuana use and have instead resulted in devastating collateral consequences including mass incarceration and other complex generational trauma, that inhibit an otherwise law abiding citizen’s ability to access housing, employment opportunities, and other vital services. Existing laws have also created an illicit market which represents a threat to public health and reduces the ability of the legislature to deter the accessing of marihuana by minors. Existing marihuana laws have disproportionately impacted African-American and Latinx communities.”

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D), who sponsored the legislation, said she’s “extremely humbled, proud and honored to have passed the historic Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act with my partners in government Senator Liz Krueger and Governor Cuomo.”

“This social justice initiative will provide equity to positively transform disenfranchised communities of color for the better,” she said. “I believe this bill can serve as a blue print for future states seeking inclusive cannabis legalization.”

While the bill moved quickly through the legislature, with four committees and both chambers passing it within hours on Tuesday, the negotiations to craft the measure were drawn out over months. Legislative leaders and the governor made a series of deals on various provisions to get the bill into shape.

Cuomo made several concessions to the legislature that represent large differences from the legalization plan he proposed in his annual budget, accepting provisions allowing home cultivation and directing how to distribute cannabis tax revenue for social equity purposes.

Earlier, he also proposed amendments to his own legislation last month that he hoped would address certain concerns from lawmakers and advocates. Those changes primarily concerned that issues such as social equity funding and criminal penalties for underage marijuana possession.

Peoples-Stokes said earlier this month that talks had been “really good and really fruitful and I’m really encouraged.” In fact, “I’ve never felt this encouraged before.” That’s despite her saying just days earlier that negotiations with the governor’s office over the legalization had become heated to the point of screaming.

There was speculation that the growing number of sexual harassment allegations against the governor—in addition to controversy over the state’s handling of nursing home COVID-19 death data—would leave him with less political clout to negotiate on behalf of his proposal over that of the lawmakers.

And while it’s true that Cuomo has included legalization proposals in his last three budget request, some might wonder whether the haste of his signing the bill is connected to a need for a political win that could draw some attention away from the scandals.

Senate Finance Chairman Liz Krueger (D), sponsor of her chamber’s version of the legalization bill, previously said that “you can’t ignore the fact that there was an interest in getting the marijuana bill done” on the governor’s end as these allegations were raised. “That seemed to pop up at around the same time.” However, she caveated, “pick a day and another shoe was dropping for the Cuomo administration.”

In any case, advocates will take the win.

“A new era for marijuana justice is here. After years of hard work against long odds, New York has enacted one of the most ambitious marijuana legalization programs in the country,” Melissa Moore, New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a press release.

“Let’s be clear—the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act is an outright victory for the communities hit hardest by the failed war on drugs,” she said. “By placing community reinvestment, social equity, and justice front and center, this law is the new gold standard for reform efforts nationwide. Today we celebrate, tomorrow we work hard to make sure this law is implemented fairly and justly for all New Yorkers.”

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) celebrated the move, saying, “Not only will this help correct an unjust system that targets marginalized communities, it will create jobs & invest in those who have been historically underserved.”

Attorney General Letitia James (D) said, “For too long, people of color have been disproportionately impacted by an outdated and shortsighted marijuana prohibition. In New York, we are finally beginning to right that wrong.”

The state Department of Labor said the new law “help to create up to 60K new jobs in NYS & includes a program encouraging individuals disproportionately impacted by cannabis enforcement to participate in the industry.”

The Department of Financial Services said new cannabis tax revenue will “help New York State’s economy rebuild and recover during this difficult time.”

State regulators will now begin the process of promulgating rules to implement the new law.

Virginia Governor Officially Asks Lawmakers To Speed Up Marijuana Legalization So It Happens This Year

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Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

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