A new bill to legalize marijuana in New York was released on Saturday after lawmakers and the governor finalized a deal that has been negotiated for weeks. Votes in the legislature are now expected to take place in the coming week.
Details about the agreed-upon language started to circulate on Wednesday, but now the text of the legislation has been released—a significant development that comes after lengthy talks between the Senate, Assembly and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) office.
Sen. Liz Krueger (D), the lead Senate sponsor of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), said in a press release that the newly revised version of her legislation will “legalize adult-use cannabis in a way that foregrounds racial justice, while balancing safety with economic growth, encouraging new small businesses, and significantly diminishing the illegal market.”
“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,” she said. “I believe we have achieved that in this bill, as well as addressing the concerns and input of stakeholders across the board. When this bill becomes law, New York will be poised to implement a nation-leading model for what marijuana legalization can look like.”
Assembly Majority Leader Peoples-Stokes (D), who is carrying the bill in her chamber, said the negotiated legislation “provides long awaited marijuana justice for New Yorkers, and makes significant steps and investments to begin to address the generational devastation caused by marijuana prohibition and mass incarceration.”
— Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes (@CPeoplesStokes) March 28, 2021
Cuomo said that “for generations, too many New Yorkers have been unfairly penalized for the use and sale of adult-use cannabis, arbitrarily arrested and jailed with harsh mandatory minimum sentences.”
“After years of tireless advocacy and extraordinarily hard work, that time is coming to an end in New York State,” the governor said. “Legalizing adult-use cannabis isn’t just about creating a new market that will provide jobs and benefit the economy—it’s also about justice for long-marginalized communities and ensuring those who’ve been unfairly penalized in the past will now get a chance to benefit. I look forward to signing this legislation into law.”
We have reached an agreement to legalize adult-use cannabis.
Too many New Yorkers have been unfairly penalized for the use & sale of cannabis, arbitrarily arrested & jailed. That time is coming to an end.
I look forward to signing this legislation into law.
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) March 28, 2021
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 would be 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.”
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Cuomo said on Wednesday that he and lawmakers were “inches” away from reaching a final deal on the legalization proposal, adding that enacting the reform is a “priority” this year to make the state the “progressive capital of the nation.”
The governor has 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.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said in a press release on Saturday that “there were many important aspects of this legislation that needed to be addressed correctly—especially the racial disparities that have plagued our state’s response to marijuana use and distribution as well as ensuring public safety—and I am proud we have reached the finish line.”
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D) said legalization “had to be done the right way—in a way that would help not harm our communities that have been devastated by the state’s drug laws.”
“The MRTA does not just legalize the adult use of marijuana,” he said, “but it rights decades of disproportionately targeting people of color, ensures they are included in the legal marijuana industry and reinvests in education and in communities that have been harmed.”
State Attorney General Letitia James (D) said legalization “is a racial and criminal justice imperative” and “a critical step towards a fairer and more just system in New York.”
The legalization of marijuana is a racial and criminal justice imperative.
Last night's announcement is a critical step towards a fairer and more just system in New York, and I look forward to it officially becoming law.
— NY AG James (@NewYorkStateAG) March 28, 2021
Peoples-Stokes (D) 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.
In the late stages of the negotiations, lawmakers said that they had reached an “impasse” with the governor over provisions related to impaired driving.
But Stewart-Cousins (D) said on Tuesday that the legislature was “really, really, really close on marijuana” following talks with executive staff office over recent weeks. “We have gotten past the impasse of the impaired driving.”
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. The Senate majority leader 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.”
The bill is in. https://t.co/ZwFxLQwmvT
— Senator Liz Krueger (@LizKrueger) March 28, 2021
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.”
Another factor working against Cuomo’s negotiating power is that Democrats now have supermajority control over the legislature, which could embolden them to override a potential veto if they were to pass a legalization bill that contained provisions the governor didn’t like.
“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.”
Legalization advocates are pleased with the new deal.
“At long last, marijuana reform is finally almost a reality in New York State,” Melissa Moore, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance and member of Start SMART NY Coalition, said in a press release. “Advancing legalization in New York also puts another nail in the coffin of the war on drugs that has devastated so many communities across the state. By comprehensively addressing the harms of past criminalization, this legislation will create one of the most ambitious marijuana legalization programs in the country. It is setting a national model for reform with community reinvestment, social equity, and justice front and center.”
The Legal Aid Society called the proposal “landmark legislation” that “brings justice to New York State by ending prohibition, expunging conviction records that have curtailed the opportunities of countless predominately young Black and Latinx New Yorkers, and delivers economic justice to ensure that communities who have suffered the brunt of aggressive and disparate marijuana enforcement are first in line to reap the economic gain.”
— The Legal Aid Society (@LegalAidNYC) March 28, 2021
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 budget 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.”
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.
There’s growing recognition among lawmakers 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.
Cuomo said in November that the “pressure will be on” to end cannabis prohibition in the state following New Jersey voters’ passage of a legalization referendum.
Read the full text of the New York marijuana legalization bill below:
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
IRS Official Offers Tax Advice To Marijuana Businesses And Says Feds Expect Industry To Keep Growing
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says it expects the marijuana industry to continue to grow, and it’s offering some tips to cannabis businesses on staying compliant with taxes while the plant remains federally prohibited.
In a blog post on Monday, IRS’s De Lon Harris said that the “evolving and complex issue my organization has been focused on is the tax implications for the rapidly growing cannabis/marijuana industry.”
“The specific rules and regulations regarding how [marijuana] is taxed at the federal level provides the IRS an opportunity to promote voluntary compliance, not only through audits, but also through outreach and education,” he said, noting the rapid expansion of state-legal cannabis markets. “And while there are 14 states that still ban cannabis use, we expect both unlicensed and licensed marijuana businesses to grow.”
“It’s tricky from a business perspective, because even though states are legalizing marijuana and treating its sale as a legal business enterprise, it’s still considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance under federal law,” Harris wrote. “That means a cannabis/marijuana business has additional considerations under the law, creating unique challenges for members of the industry.”
The official, who serves as commissioner of IRS’s Small Business/Self Employed (SB/SE) Examination division, recognized that the status quo means that marijuana businesses are forced to operate on a largely cash-only basis, and federal prohibition also means that companies in the sector are precluded to taking key tax deductions.
However, while the tax statute known as 280E means the industry is ineligible for most federal tax deductions and credits, he noted that marijuana firms “can deduct their cost of goods sold, which is basically the cost of their inventory.”
“What isn’t deductible are the normal overhead expenses, such as advertising expenses, wages and salaries, and travel expenses, to name a few,” Harris said. “I understand this nuance can be a challenge for some business owners, and I also realize small businesses don’t always have a lot of resources available to them.
The official previewed a new “Cannabis/Marijuana Initiative” the agency is launching that will provide specific job training to tax officials to effectively carry out audits within the industry, ensure that there’s consistency in the IRS’s policy for cannabis, work with stakeholders to ensure tax compliance and help to identify non-compliant businesses.
“I’m very focused on the success of this strategy because it’s very important for business owners to understand that under our nation’s tax laws, and specifically Internal Revenue Code 61, all income is taxable, even if someone is running a business that’s considered illegal under federal law,” he said. “This is a truly groundbreaking effort for our agency.”
“Our strategy is not limited to pushing information out via our website in the hope that business owners will find it. I’ve made it a priority for my SB/SE organization to engage with the cannabis/marijuana industry through speaking events and other outreach. I have done three of these types of events over the last year, and what I have heard is a genuine desire to comply with the tax laws regarding the industry. Through this extended outreach, we hope to help small business owners and others fully understand the unique tax rules before there are any compliance issues.”
“Since the unique circumstances of the cannabis industry can make tax preparation challenging, I hope that new and experienced business owners take my advice in this post and use our resources to ensure they understand their tax obligations and avoid penalties associated with non-compliance,” the blog post concludes. “We’re always here to help with tools, information and guidance.”
This is yet another signal that while marijuana remains federally illegal, agencies are increasingly recognizing that a policy shift is happening in states and may well be on the horizon at the congressional level.
As leadership in the House and Senate work to advance legislation to deschedule cannabis, lawmakers have also pushed to enact clear, statutory protections for financial institutions that work with state-legal marijuana businesses. And that would be accomplished through House-passed standalone legislation, or an amendment that was attached to a defense spending bill this week.
In the interim, banks and credit unions are operating under 2014 guidance from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) that lays out reporting requirements for those that choose to service the marijuana industry. FinCEN released a report last week showing that there were 706 financial institutions that said they were actively serving cannabis clients as of the last quarter.
IRS separately hosted a forum last month dedicated to tax policy for marijuana businesses and cryptocurrency.
The seminar, which was presented by a representative of the National Association of Tax Professionals (NATP), examined issues such as allowable tax deductions while cannabis remains federally illegal and how different states approach taxing marijuana. It also covered issues related to paying taxes on earnings in Bitcoin and other forms of digital currency.
Earlier this year, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig told Congress that the agency would “prefer” for state-legal marijuana businesses to be able to pay taxes electronically, as the current largely cash-based system under federal cannabis prohibition is onerous and presents risks to workers.
Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in 2019 that he’d like to see Congress approve legislation resolving the cannabis banking issue and he pointed to the fact that IRS has had to build “cash rooms” to deposit taxes from those businesses as an example of the problem.
IRS released updated guidance on tax policy for the marijuana industry last year, including instructions on how cannabis businesses that don’t have access to bank accounts can pay their tax bills using large amounts of cash.
The update appears to be responsive to a Treasury Department internal watchdog report that was released earlier in the year. The department’s inspector general for tax administration had criticized IRS for failing to adequately advise taxpayers in the marijuana industry about compliance with federal tax laws. And it directed the agency to “develop and publicize guidance specific to the marijuana industry.”
Harris’s predecessor at IRS SB/SE also participated in an informational webinar in December, offering candid insights on a variety of cannabis industry issues from the federal perspective.
Massachusetts Lawmakers Discuss Drug Decriminalization And Safe Injection Sites At Hearing
Massachusetts lawmakers on Monday heard testimony on separate proposals to decriminalize drug possession and establish a pilot program for safe injection facilities where people could use illicit substances in a medically supervised environment to prevent overdose deaths and facilitate treatment.
The state legislature’s Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery held a hearing on the harm reduction proposals, with experts and people personally impacted by substance misuse advocating for new approaches to drugs that destigmatize addiction and offer people resources outside of a criminal justice context.
The decriminalization bill would replace criminal penalties for the possession of any controlled substance with a civil fine of up to $50. To avoid the fine, individuals could enroll in a “needs screening to identify health and other service needs, including but not limited to services that may address any problematic substance use and mental health conditions, lack of employment, housing, or food, and any need for civil legal services.”
For the safe injection site legislation, the state would establish a 10-year pilot program where at least two facilities would “utilize harm reduction tools, including clinical monitoring of the consumption of pre-obtained controlled substances in the presence of trained staff, for the purpose of reducing the risks of disease transmission and preventing overdose deaths.”
A separate, less far-reaching bill that was added to the agenda in a late addition would direct the Department of Public Health to simply “evaluate the feasibility” of safe consumption sites and then report back to lawmakers by July 31, 2022..
The joint committee listened to academics, health professionals, lawmakers discuss the reform proposals but did not take immediate action on any of the legislation. It’s unclear when the bills will be taken up again for further consideration.
“By every metric, the war on drugs has been a catastrophic failure,” Rep. Mike Connolly (D) said. “In the United States and here in Massachusetts, the criminalization of drug possession is a major driver of mass incarceration. We know that black people have been incarcerated at a rate eight times higher than white people, and there’s no question that the criminalization of substance use issues has contributed to these terrible disparities.”
Connolly is also the sponsor of legislation that received a Joint Judiciary Committee hearing in July on studying the implications of legalizing psychedelics like psilocybin and ayahuasca.
Officials with at least one Massachusetts city, Somerville, said that there are plans in the work to launch a safe injection facility in the jurisdiction. And they want to see the statewide bill pass to provide additional protections against being federally penalized.
“State legislation, wielding its constitutionally granted powers to enact laws for public health and safety, has the ability to greatly minimize these risks through legislation authorizing a pilot of safe consumption sites,” Hannah Pappenheim, assistant city solicitor at the City of Somerville, said. “In addition, state legislation would also minimize the risk of costly—but more importantly, lengthy—litigation.”
The official noted that a separate, Pennsylvania-based case on the legality of safe injection sites has been ongoing in federal courts for years at this point.
A coalition of 80 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials—including one who is President Joe Biden’s pick for U.S. attorney of Massachusetts—recently filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to take up the case.
Xavier Bacerra, the Biden administration’s secretary of health and human services, was among eight top state law enforcement officials who filed an earlier amicus brief in support of the Philadelphia-based Safehouse’s safe injection site plan when he served as California’s attorney general.
“State legislation paves the way for a more expedient process in Somerville, and of course elsewhere in the Commonwealth,” Pappenheim said.
Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone (D) said at Monday’s hearing that “it’s important for Massachusetts to finally lead—not just compiling, but implementing a strategy that reduces harm and save lives.” He conceded that he previously opposed the concept of allowing safe consumption sites; but his personal experience knowing people in his immediate family who suffered from addiction—as well as his own review of the scientific literature on harm reduction alternatives to criminalization—led him to embrace the reforms.
Massachusetts lawmakers advanced similar legislation last year, but it was not ultimately enacted.
The governor of neighboring Rhode Island signed a bill in July to establish a safe consumption site pilot program where people could test and use currently illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment. It became the first state in the country to legalize the harm reduction centers. It’s not clear whether the Department of Justice will seek to intervene to prevent the opening of such facilities in that state.
Oamshri Amarasingham, deputy legislative director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, voiced support for both reform proposals at Monday’s hearing and told WGBH that establishing a safe injection site pilot program “is one piece of that puzzle” that is “critically important and that’s had great success in other countries.”
The ACLU has long supported shifting to a #PublicHealth approach to drug policy rather than a criminal one…
— ACLU Massachusetts (@ACLU_Mass) September 27, 2021
Shaleen Title, a former Massachusetts cannabis commissioner who now heads the Parabola Center, juxtaposed how laws handle substances like caffeine, alcohol and nicotine differently from currently illegal drugs.
“What separates that from when we have these illicit drugs, where handcuffs and cages are involved, and what led that to be? The reason has nothing to do with science, or evidence or the relative dangers of those drugs,” she said. “The reason is because—and this is well-documented—those drugs could be scapegoated and blamed on their association with indigenous and Indian and Mexican and Chinese and other cultures, and then used to target communities of color, particularly black and Latino people nationally and here in Massachusetts.”
At the same time that Massachusetts legislators are looking into harm reduction and broad drug decriminalization, local activists in the state have also been pursuing psychedelics reform.
Three Massachusetts cities—Northampton, Somerville and Cambridge—have each passed resolutions to deprioritize enforcement of laws against the possession, use and distribution of a wide range of psychedelics and other drugs. The Easthampton City Council is also exploring a resolution to decriminalize a wide range of entheogenic substances, with a meeting set for Friday.
Marijuana Arrests Dropped Sharply In 2020 As Both COVID And Legalization Spread, FBI Data Shows
Marijuana arrests declined significantly in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, newly released FBI data shows.
There were 1,155,610 drug-related arrests overall last year, with cannabis sales and possession busts accounting for just over 30 percent (or 350,150) of those cases. The vast majority were for marijuana possession alone.
The agency’s data shows that there was a cannabis arrest every 90 seconds in the country in 2020, and there was a drug-related arrest every 27 seconds.
While these figures still highlight the rampant, ongoing criminalization of cannabis in states across the U.S., it’s a substantial deescalation compared to 2019, when FBI reported a total of 545,601 marijuana arrests. That amounted to a cannabis bust every 58 seconds.
Put another way, there was a 36 percent decrease in cannabis cases from 2019 to 2020. And while the federal agency doesn’t attempt to explain the statistical shift, there are a number of factors that could help explain it.
One of the more obvious societal changes during that timeframe is the COVID-19 health crisis, which involved social distancing requirements and generally discouraged people from being out in public where they might be at higher risk of being arrested for simple possession.
But advocates have also pointed out that the marijuana reform movement could be playing a role. Illinois’s adult-use cannabis law took effect at the beginning of 2020, for example. Hawaii, New Mexico and North Dakota also enacted decriminalization of marijuana possession in 2019, and Virginia followed suit the next year.
In Arizona, limited cannabis possession was legalized for adults starting on November 30, 2020 following voter approval of a reform initiative earlier that month.
“As more states move toward the sensible policy of legalizing and regulating cannabis, we are seeing a decline in the arrest of non-violent marijuana consumers nationwide,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri told Marijuana Moment. “The fight for legalization is a fight for justice. While these numbers represent a historic decline in arrests, even one person being put into handcuffs for the simple possession of marijuana is too many.”
Despite the decline in cannabis busts, the new data shows that American law enforcement still carried out more arrests for marijuana alone last year than for murder, rape, robbery, burglary, fraud and embezzlement combined.
It should be noted that not all local police participate in FBI’s reporting program, so these figures are not holistic and are estimates the agency makes based on those that do submit data.
The country had seen a consistent decline in cannabis arrests for roughly a decade prior to 2016, when those cases started to rise up until 2019.
Observers expect to see the downward trend in cannabis busts continue as more states move to end prohibition and law enforcement deprioritizes marijuana-relate cases. In New York, for example, police received new guidance this year stipulating that adults 21 and older can possess certain amounts of marijuana and consume it in places where tobacco use is permitted.
That directive alone seems to have led to a dramatic decrease in cannabis arrests in New York City.
Federal marijuana trafficking cases also continued to decline in 2020 as more states have moved to legalize, an analysis from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) that was released in June found.
Federal prosecutions of drug-related crimes overall increased in 2019, but cases involving marijuana dropped by more than a quarter, according to an end-of-year report released by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in December.
A study released by the Cato Institute in 2018 found that “state-level marijuana legalization has significantly undercut marijuana smuggling.”