New York activists are ready for 2021 to be the year that the state finally legalizes marijuana. But one little-noticed provision of the cannabis reform proposal introduced by the governor in his budget request last week has become a major source of contention.
That said, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) second-in-command told Marijuana Moment that the policy at issue—an increase in penalties for certain cannabis-related offenses—could change as the administration and lawmakers negotiate the finer details of the proposal.
While marijuana would be legal to purchase and possess for adults 21 and older under Cuomo’s plan, the legislative text he released also contains a section that would make it a class D felony—punishable by up to 2.5 years in prison—to sell cannabis to anyone under the age of 21.
That’s a significantly more serious penalty that what’s currently on the books. As it stands, an illicit sale to an underage person is a misdemeanor.
Advocates say this proposal runs counter to the stated intent of the legalization measure, which is to end marijuana criminalization and promote social equity. Cuomo has repeatedly recognized that people of color are disproportionately targeted by police when it comes to cannabis enforcement—and there’s no reason to believe that would be any different if this policy were to go into effect.
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Tuesday that the administration remains “very concerned about making sure that no one under the age of 21 is participating” in the marijuana market, and the intent of the section at issue is deterrence.
But while the provision was included in the governor’s budget plan, she also left room for further revisions, 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.”
Eli Northrup, a New York public defender and member of the reform coalition Smart START NY, ignited a conversation over the youth penalty provision last week, arguing on Twitter that legalization “cannot mean increased criminalization.”
Under @NYGovCuomo marijuana “legalization” proposal, released Tuesday, selling ANY amount to a person under 21 is a class D felony which carries the potential of 2.5 yrs in prison. This same behavior is currently a misdemeanor. Legalization cannot mean increased criminalization.
— Eli Northrup (@EliNorthrup) January 21, 2021
The text of the proposal at issue states that a “person is guilty of criminal sale of cannabis in the second degree when he knowingly and unlawfully sells…any amount of cannabis or concentrated cannabis to any person under twenty-one years of age” and that such an offense is “a class D felony.”
Here’s the provision in the Governor’s revenue proposal for those interested pic.twitter.com/DACDpTwhw4
— Eli Northrup (@EliNorthrup) January 21, 2021
Melissa Moore, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment that “if we’re going to legalize, that needs to mean not creating new marijuana crimes.”
Cuomo has “really acknowledged the fact that the harm of marijuana criminalization has fallen disproportionately on communities of color in New York, and we need to move out of that scenario and get it right this time,” she said.
“He said too many black and brown New Yorkers have been the target of enforcement—that there’s been this exaggerated injustice of the justice system,” Moore continued. “If that’s the case, then as we’re turning the page in the playbook and moving into a legalization framework, then why on earth would you establish really harsh penalties and create new crimes, as he’s done in his proposal?”
Hey @NYGovCuomo we watching you 👇🏿 @startsmartNY coalition member @EliNorthrup of @BronxDefenders with the truth – legalization does not mean increased criminalization. Stay focused yall, are people are worth more than talking points. cc: @FABNEWYORK @oldmanebro @MichaelSkolnik https://t.co/OaQcQvI9B3
— Kassandra Frederique (@Kassandra_Fred) January 21, 2021
One of the goals of taxing and regulating cannabis sales for adults is to disrupt the illicit market and prevent youth use by ensuring that marijuana is sold at licensed facilities where there are policies in place to stop underage people from accessing those products. And to that end, there should be business-level penalties for dispensaries that violate the law such as revoking a license, Moore said.
But what the governor’s language threatens to do is further criminalize individuals over marijuana even as the state moves to establish a regulated market, advocates argue. Hypothetically, a police officer would be able to arrest a 22-year-old college student for selling a joint to a 19-year-old classmate, for instance, and giving police that latitude could lead to a continuation of discriminatory enforcement.
Beyond the underage provision, advocates also have outstanding concerns the Cuomo plan’s omission of a home cultivation option for medical patients or recreational consumers.
The lieutenant governor told Marijuana Moment that while such activity would not be allowed under the budget proposal as submitted, “everything is always on the table” as the administration works with legislators to enact legalization.
“It’s certainly something that has been brought to our attention,” she said. “I can’t say that there’s a change in that at this point, but I also have to ask advocates to recognize that this is a major societal, cultural shift for a state like New York, that we view ourselves as very progressive, but much of New York State is not New York City. There are very conservative areas of our state.”
“I know these these areas are hesitant philosophically, and in order to get their buy-in and acquiescence and acceptance of what is, in their mind, really dramatic shifts in the state policy, we have to take smaller steps,” she added.
Meanwhile, advocates have also expressed frustration over the limited amount of funding for social equity grants that’s included in the governor’s proposal.
The administration says it expects the state to bring in about $350 million in marijuana tax revenue, and the plan allocates $100 million of those funds to social equity grants over the course of four years, followed by a recurring $50 million annually.
“The parameters of that [grant program] have not been established yet,” Hochul said. “This is where we want to have input from those communities to determine, does this help businesses set up retail operations in order to be in the communities legally selling marijuana? Does this create other opportunities to address job training?”
“We want to make sure that these communities also have access to the jobs and the job training,” she added. “There are many ways that we can address this, and we’re not going to say the answers—I think the answers lie in those communities themselves.”
Activists have also pointed out that Cuomo’s proposal “seeks to enhance criminal penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana and creates new criminal penalties for growing and selling marijuana without a license.”
The Governor's proposal also seeks to enhance criminal penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana and creates new criminal penalties for growing and selling marijuana without a license.
— Brooklyn Defender Services (@BklynDefender) January 22, 2021
All that said, the governor’s budget plan—which includes legalization language for the third year in a row—is not the finished product, as Hochul pointed out. Rather, it represents a starting point for negotiations with his office and the legislature, where other reform bills have been introduced for this session.
And unlike in past sessions, the legislature will have more influence this year after Senate Democrats secured a supermajority in the November election. If the governor were to veto any bill over details he didn’t like, they could potentially have enough votes to override him.
Advocates are confident that lawmakers will recognize the potential consequences of provisions they see as problematic and will work to remove or revise them as the legislature takes up the issue.
To that end, New York’s legal cannabis market could end up looking more like what’s outlined in a bill introduced by Sen. Liz Krueger (D) and 18 cosponsors at the beginning of this month. The legislation would make it so adults 21 and older would be able to purchase cannabis and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.
It would also provide for automatic expungements for those with prior cannabis convictions and it also includes low- or zero-interest loans for qualifying equity applicants who wish to start marijuana businesses.
In any case, there’s growing recognition in the state that legalization is an inevitability.
The top Republican in the New York Assembly said last month 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.