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Everything you wanted to know about legalizing pot in New York

ALBANY – What’s it take to legalize marijuana laws in New York?

Exactly 191 pages.

That’s how long the provisions stretch in one of the budget bills proposed this week by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to legalize adult recreational marijuana use.

Now, it’s the Legislature’s turn and on Wednesday legislative officials were saying they largely like the Cuomo plan, but that there are still many details to be flushed out over the next couple of months.

Here are just some questions and some answers about the Cuomo plan, based largely on the specifics outlined in the 191 pages.

Why does Cuomo want to legalize pot? Didn’t he just 23 months ago call marijuana a dangerous “gateway” drug at a time when some lawmakers wanted to legalize pot?

Yes, he did. But he said new information came his way from a study group he appointed that Cuomo says found there were more benefits than risks to legalizing the drug. Moreover, he notes disproportionately high numbers of minorities were arrested over the years for marijuana possession. Those arrest records would be sealed under his new plan. Also, he notes other neighboring states – and Canada – have legalized marijuana use and that, in the case of the states like Massachusetts, it’s easy for New Yorkers to cross the border if they want to purchase pot from a regulated retailer and not on the black market. Losing out to border states was the argument he used several years ago about why New York needed to expand casino gambling.

What’s the legal rationale for legalizing marijuana?

The answer comes in the first sentence of the proposed law that Cuomo has dubbed “The Cannabis Act.’’ The provision states: “It is hereby declared as a policy of the state of New York that it is necessary to properly regulate and control the cultivation, processing, manufacture, wholesale and retail production, distribution, transportation and sale of cannabis, cannabis-related products, medical cannabis and help cannabis within the state of New York, for the purposes of fostering and promoting temperance in their consumption, to properly protect the public health, safety and welfare, and to promote social equality."

Who will regulate marijuana sales?

The plan calls for creation of a new state agency called the Office of Cannabis Management. It will be run by an executive director and be a division of the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control office. Pot will work like beer, wine and spirits sales: chiefly through a three-tiered approach that envisions separate entities that grow, distribute and then sell pot. The executive director, not yet identified, will have the discretion “to limit, or not to limit” the number of pot licenses, to regulate potency and the types of pot products to be sold and to halt all cultivation and sales “at any time of public emergency.” The agency boss will also be able to issue low- or no-interest loans to “qualified social equity applicants” seeking pot licenses to grow, distribute or sell the drug.

That seems like a lot of power for one person whose appointment would not have to be approved by the State Senate like other state agency heads.

It’s just a peek at the authority that office and its director will have. It will also work with other agencies, including the agriculture department, to develop rules governing the safe production of marijuana plants, including devising restrictions on pesticide use. And there are still many, many issues to play out. For instance, that future regulatory office would, under Cuomo’s plan, still need to issue rules on how the state will block pot sold to adults from getting into the hands of people under 21 or from streaming to “criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels.’’ Also pushed to future rule-making: how the state intends to reduce driving while high and preventing gun or other violence in connection with distribution of marijuana.

So, pot sales will be everywhere?

It’s a blue state, but not that blue. The Cuomo plan permits both individual counties and cities with more than 100,000 residents to opt out – and therefore not permit cultivation or retail pot facilities in their jurisdictions – if their governing body adopts an ordinance, law or resolution to “completely prohibit the establishment or operation” of any of the pot-licensed entities Cuomo is proposing. Those localities that permit them are barred from enacting their own local-specific laws regulating growers, distributors or retailers, except for such things as setting times and places where pot can be sold.

Will New York State make money off the idea?

In the long run, yes. Cuomo projects $300 million a year coming from three separate taxes on the marijuana supply chain, including 22 percent of sales and excise taxes. But it’s a slow start. No revenues are expect this year and $83 million next year is expected in tax receipts.

Cuomo: Legalizing pot will bring in $300 million in tax revenue

Beyond black market sales that will still continue as a way to avoid things like paying high tax rates, it sounds like a lot of pot will flow through a regulated marketplace?

A trade group that represents New York’s medical marijuana organizations, which wants to be able to produce and sell recreational marijuana products, has estimated the state’s pot marketplace will be up to 1.5 million people. The amount of pot needed annually to feed that market: 638,000 pounds, it says.

So, the Legislature, now run by Democrats who mostly lean to the political left, will certainly pass Cuomo’s plan?

It would be unwise to bet against marijuana getting legalized this session. But, on Wednesday, neither legislative house would commit to the precise way Cuomo wants things done with the pot laws. And concerns have been raised both before and after Cuomo released his plan about the complex system that will be used to award pot licenses to growers, distributors and retailers, as well as criticism from pro-marijuana legislators who believe localities should not be permitted to opt out of the program. “Repairing the damage done by marijuana prohibition is not negotiable. Restitution to communities most impacted by marijuana prohibition is the starting line … Given New York’s appalling history with racially biased marijuana enforcement, we must be bold and innovative in creating justice and equity," said Kassandra Frederique, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports marijuana legalization.

But the support is overwhelming to legalize pot, right?

Hardly. The criticisms are many. They revolve chiefly around public health and safety worries. County health officials have been sounding the alarms, as has the trade group representing doctors. Concerns include health effects on human minds that still are developing until about age 25, doctors say, as well as on pregnant women and claims that youth pot smoking will rise even further in a state that gives its official green light to adult use. States that have legalized pot have seen traffic accident mortality rates rise in some cases. At the very least, they say a slew of safeguards need to be imposed – from preventing sales to pregnant women to banning the smoking of marijuana and permitting only edible or vaporized products to be sold. Others say that, in time, the New York pot marketplace will be dominated by big corporations, such as tobacco companies, and it will be difficult to maintain an entrepreneur/small business model as some hope to achieve.

Some states have moved, or are moving, to allow residents to grow marijuana at home. Does Cuomo’s plan permit that?

Not for recreational adult use purposes. For those enrolled in the state’s medical marijuana program, those over age 21 could grow up to four plants at home in an enclosed, locked space not viewable to the public and only for the patient’s use.

What impact will this have on New York’s medical marijuana program, which was approved in 2014 and took 18 months to get up and running?

That is among the unanswered questions. Since inception, the program has had 87,033 enrolled patients. Will all those still alive and registered to use medical marijuana remain with the program, or will some just turn to adult recreational pot? Also, recreational pot will be the three-tiered grow/distribute/sell approach, whereas medical marijuana is a “vertically integrated” system in which one company does all three things. Those medical pot firms will, however, not be banned from participating in the new recreational program, and it will be up to the new regulatory office, under Cuomo’s plan, to “hold a competitive bidding process, including an auction” for those firms to get recreational pot licenses.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes of Buffalo is the sponsor of the Assembly’s recreational marijuana legalization bill. What does she think of Cuomo’s plan?

On Wednesday, she said she likes the creation of a central regulatory agency for medical marijuana, recreational pot and the hemp industry. She said she also likes a commitment by Cuomo for “social equity” so that pathways will be created for people to get into the marijuana business who might not have experience in the industry. How will that happen? That’s not specified in Cuomo’s plan, she said. One problem she noted: Cuomo’s plan is not specific about steering some pot tax revenues to “communities devastated by mass incarceration,’’ which some advocates have called a form of reparations for low-income communities via additional state funds for treatment and additional social and community services. “I think that’s something that can be worked out in negotiations,’’ Peoples-Stokes said.

Where will pot stores be located?

Pot sales without a state license are prohibited. Under Cuomo’s plan, cannabis stores must have its principal level at street level, be on a public thoroughfare, or on an arcade or “sub-surface thoroughfare leading to a railroad terminal.’’ They must be certain distances away from schools and houses of worship and must notify the municipality of its intent to seek a retail pot license. The locality may express an “opinion” on a pot store’s location, but it can’t block the bid on its own. The plan also envisions creation of “cannabis on-site consumption” locations, which can include the retail outlets; pot giveway promotions by those sites would be barred. “If an employee of a cannabis retail licensee suspects that a cannabis consumer may be abusing cannabis, such an employee shall have a duty to encourage such cannabis consumer to seek the help of a registered practitioner and become a certified patient,’’ the plan states. Pot licensees in the program with more than 25 employees must have collective bargaining agreements with “a bona-fide labor organization," it adds.

What about employer rules now pertaining to marijuana use, such as drug testing for pot?

The plan states: “Unless an employer establishes that the lawful use of cannabis has impaired the employee’s ability to perform the employee’s job responsibilities, it shall be unlawful to take any adverse employment action against an employee based on conduct allowed” under the proposed law. Employers would be permitted to “take adverse employment action” against workers “for the possession or use of intoxicating substances during work hours.”

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