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Editorial: Cuomo's push for legal pot should peel off from budget package

What is the rush to legalize recreational marijuana in New York State? It’s a good bet that the money at stake – projected to be $300 million in potential tax revenue in the first three years – is causing the haste.

That’s why Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo inserted a cannabis initiative into the state budget package, to seek swift passage and give the executive branch nearly exclusive say in how the product will be regulated and taxed.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes last week spoke up about the cannabis proposals in the budget package. As a leader in the legislative branch, she is wary of the new revenue stream being allocated “at the whim of the governor and his administration.”

Cuomo’s plan calls for the revenues to fund administration of the marijuana program, as well as substance abuse treatment, public health education, research on cannabis use and other useful items. But there are legitimate concerns about who sets the priorities and sees that they are carried out.

The governor’s plan calls for him to appoint a person to head a new Office of Cannabis Management. The director would have sole authority to select marijuana growers and retailers, and to set regulations such as acceptable potency levels for legal pot.

In the words of Peoples-Stokes, “It’s a lot of power in one person.” She’s right.

An argument can be made for the idea of a pot czar to expedite getting the state cannabis program up and running. But regular agency heads are subject to Senate confirmation. Why should this office be different?

Peoples-Stokes points out that a panel of other experts – such as from tax, health and agriculture agencies – should be appointed to regulate the program. It certainly would benefit from varied areas of expertise.

A bill sponsored by Peoples-Stokes would require at least 50 percent of the marijuana tax revenue be earmarked for minority communities that have been most hurt by the war on drugs. That’s a significant carve-out that could be whittled down in negotiations, but it’s an idea worthy of serious consideration. Minority communities deserve a boost in resources to aid individuals and families whose lives were upended by unjust incarceration.

Legalizing marijuana for recreational use is complicated, worthwhile and likely inevitable. But that’s no reason for it to be rushed through as part of the state budget. A better tack would be to put it for discussion and voting as a stand-alone piece of legislation.

The Democratic speaker of the Assembly, Carl Heastie, got some pushback on social media after suggesting he had doubts on reaching a consensus on cannabis by the end of March, when the budget is due.

“I want to get it right, rather than beat a ‘time clock,’ ” Heastie tweeted.

It’s time to turn off the clock and give this issue the deliberation it deserves.

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