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New York Lawmakers Slam Governor’s Marijuana Legalization Plan While Touting Legislature’s Own Bill

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New York lawmakers had some choice words for the governor’s marijuana legalization proposal on Thursday, describing it as “watered down” and “all wrong” because they feel it inadequately addresses social equity and instead values revenue generation over justice.

During a press conference, Senate and Assembly members and reform advocates took Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to task over the legalization plan he outlined in his budget request last month. Legislative leaders said the proposal shows that the governor isn’t serious about enacting the policy change and called for the passage of a bill out of the legislature instead.

“My position has been, and it still is, that [Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act] should be passed on the floor of the legislature,” Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D) said, referring to a separate plan filed by lawmakers. “We’ve seen the governor’s proposal for the third time. Okay, now let us put our proposal out there, get it passed by the legislature and then we’ll begin to negotiate with the governor.”

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.

“Clearly, his tax proposals are all wrong. Clearly, his social equity proposals are wrong,” Peoples-Stokes said of the governor’s latest attempt. “There are a number of things that need to be fixed, and if they’re not fixed, then we’ll be here next year trying to do the same thing.”

The majority leader, who made similar comments about the path forward for legalization last week, added that advocates and lawmakers “need to probably start pounding a little harder—not just on the governor, but on people across the state” to advance reform.

To be sure, Cuomo did put forward a plan to use part of the marijuana tax revenue to fund equity grants, and his proposal also calls for automatic expungements of prior low-level cannabis convictions. But advocates feel his proposal is too focused on filling budget gaps rather than righting the wrongs of prohibition.

“I agree with many of my colleagues here. We need to flex on the governor,” Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernandez (D) said. “We got a supermajority, we got the Senate, we got the Assembly. Let’s bring it to the floor and show him that this is what we want for the people of New York. This is what our constituents need right now, not a watered down approach.”

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D) said that “at this point, the world has progressed on—and [Cuomo’s] budget language is now, I would say, a key obstacle to getting good, fair, progressive legislation done on marijuana.”

Sen. Jeremy Cooney (D) said that “the governor’s proposal has actually gone backwards.”

“We are not going in the right direction, as the majority leader noted before. Three times is not a charm,” he said, adding that the plan “actually preserved criminality for several offenses related to marijuana.”

Among the issues that activists have identified in Cuomo’s plan is a provision that would increase penalties for selling cannabis to people under 21—making it a class D felony punishable by up to 2.5 years in prison instead of a misdemeanor as it currently is.

Beyond the underage criminalization component, advocates also have outstanding concerns the Cuomo plan’s omission of a home cultivation option for medical patients or recreational consumers. In contrast, Peoples-Stokes’s bill would provide for home grow.

The lawmakers’ press conference on Thursday comes as advocates are holding a virtual lobby day to build support for the justice-focused cannabis legislation.

For what it’s worth, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) told Marijuana Moment in a recent interview that there may be room for further revisions to the 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.”

“The only way to do marijuana legalization right is by recognizing and acting to reverse the immense damage done by its criminalization,”Eli Northrup, criminal defense policy counsel at The Bronx Defenders, said in a press release. “We’re calling on lawmakers to pass the MRTA so that Black and brown communities can actually share in the benefits of legalization.”

Melissa Moore of the Drug Policy Alliance said that “New Yorkers are more ready than ever to create a new paradigm for marijuana legalization that centers reinvestment, equity, and justice.”

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 coming session.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) 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.

The push to legalize in New York could also be bolstered by the fact that voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a legalization referendum in November.

Separately, several other bills that focus on medical marijuana were recently prefiled in New York, and they touch on a wide range of topics—from tenants’ rights for medical cannabis patients to health insurance coverage for marijuana products.

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