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New York Lawmakers Overcome Marijuana Legalization ‘Impasse’ And Expect Bill In ‘Next Day Or So’

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A top New York senator said that lawmakers and the governor have successfully resolved an outstanding issue in marijuana legalization negotiations related to impaired driving, setting the stage for a formal introduction of new bill text within days.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said on Tuesday that the legislature is “really, really, really close on marijuana” following negotiations with executive staff office over recent weeks. “We have gotten past the impasse of the impaired driving.”

“We are looking to get language that will I think be satisfactory in the next day or so,” she said during a virtual press briefing.

While that language isn’t available yet, Stewart-Cousins said the legislation will likely contain a provision providing additional tax dollars for law enforcement to be trained to identify impaired driving.

Legislators also signaled last week that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) had ceded to them on two other key components: one to allow adults to cultivate cannabis for personal use and another concerning how to allocate marijuana tax revenue for social equity purposes.

Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Liz Krueger (D), sponsor of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), said she’s “extremely pleased with the agreement that we have come to.”

The legislature has also made clear that, despite the governor’s prior longstanding push to pass legalization through the budget, the issue will be handled as a standalone bill outside of that process. Stewart-Cousins confirmed on Tuesday that that’s still the plan.

Krueger said last week that she’s “feeling that there is impetus to get this done as quickly as possible, and I am prepared to do everything in my power to close this out, get this bill to both floors and get it signed by the governor.”

There’s been 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.

Krueger 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.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D) recently said that he thinks “the executive is moving closer to where” the sponsors of the MRTA are.

For this part, Cuomo said last week that the sides are “very close” to reaching a deal. “We’ve tried to do that for the past three years, we have to get it done this year.”

Public defender and activist Eli Northrup previously said that he’s heard from sources that Cuomo is pushing to have the legislation make it so police could continue to justify stops and searches based on the odor of cannabis alone, regardless of its legalization.

Advocates strongly oppose that policy—and while it remains to be seen whether it will be included in the forthcoming bill, Scott Hechinger, a senior attorney with the Brooklyn Defender Services, said signs indicate that the pushback to that proposal was being felt by negotiations working on the cannabis legislation.

“We’ve been working on a marijuana bill. I’ve had a number of conversations with members,” the governor said last week. “We’ve been making good progress.”

Krueger also said recently that lawmakers were “working hard on a three-way agreed upon bill that could pass the legislature before we get to the budget.” She added: “I feel like we are 95 percent there. We have taken some big steps towards getting this done.”

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D), the chamber’s sponsor of MRTA, said earlier this month that talks “are 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 talks with the governor’s office over the legalization legislation had become heated to the point of screaming.

A state budget spokesperson said that the “administration is working with all parties to pass a comprehensive regulatory structure for adult-use cannabis that prioritizes social equity, social justice, economic development, and the public health and safety of all New Yorkers.”

Cuomo proposed amendments to his legislation last month that he hoped would address certain concerns from lawmakers and advocates. The changes primarily concern that issues such as social equity funding and criminal penalties for underage marijuana possession.

Another factor working against Cuomo is that Democrats now have supermajority control over the legislature, which could empower them to override a potential veto if they were to pass the MRTA against the governor’s wishes.

New York lawmakers last month held the first public hearing of the year on proposals to legalize cannabis, specifically focusing on budget implications.

Legislators heard testimony during the joint session from two pro-legalization industry representatives and one opponent. Despite their ideological differences when it comes to legalization in general, all three panelists were critical of Cuomo’s reform proposal. The two reform advocates said they would prefer to advance the MRTA over his legislation.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D)—who would become governor is Cuomo were to resign or be impeached—told Marijuana Moment in a January interview that there would be room for revisions to the current governor’s plan, stating that “much of it is going to be negotiated with the legislature, and all these details can be resolved with their input as well.”

Cuomo said that the changes in his bill reflect “the conversations we’ve had, but I’m hopeful that we can come to an agreement and we can get it done. He added that he believes, “because I’ve seen this movie before, “if we don’t get it done by April 1, we won’t get it done.”

This is the third year in a row that Cuomo has included a legalization proposal in his budget plan. The last two times, negotiations with the legislature stalled amid disagreements over certain components such as the tax structure for the market and funding for social equity programs.

Regardless of which direction the legislature ultimately goes on this issue, there’s growing recognition in the state that legalization is an inevitability.

The top Republican in the New York Assembly said in December that he expects the legislature to legalize cannabis this session.

Stewart-Cousins said in November that she also anticipates that the reform will advance in 2021, though she noted that lawmakers will still have to decide on how tax revenue from marijuana sales is distributed.

Cuomo also said that month that the “pressure will be on” to legalize cannabis in the state and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to boost the economy amid the health crisis.

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