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Leading state lawmakers tweak recreational pot bill in hopes of passage

State lawmakers championing the legalization of recreational marijuana have taken steps to reach common ground with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in the hopes of seeing a legalization bill become law sometime in the next few weeks.

The governor in January rolled out a plan to legalize recreational pot, but in recent months his enthusiasm has waned, and such a measure was not included in his budget bill in March.

Now, supporters of legalization are trying to tailor a bill they submitted four months ago with an aim to make it more palatable to Cuomo and more of their fellow lawmakers.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, and State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, filed a bill amendment Friday that would decrease the amount of pot a person could legally possess and increase taxes from what the legislators proposed in their original bill a few months ago.

At the same time, though, the amendment calls for expunging the records of people with previous lower-level marijuana convictions – something supporters of legalization say is critical, since such convictions can close doors to employment, housing and educational opportunities.

“The social and economic justice parts for me are really huge,” Peoples-Stokes said Monday. “At the end of the day, the most important piece to me is expunging people’s records, to give people a chance to survive in America.

“You should be willing to use the art of compromise to come up with something that gets you to your goal,” she added.

Among the changes to the Legislature’s original bill:

• Previous lower-level marijuana convictions would be expunged.

Rather than sealed, as the Legislature’s original bill stipulated. Expunging an individual’s conviction would be faster and less cumbersome to the affected individuals, Peoples-Stokes said. The state would have six months after the law would take effect to identify the records that apply.

Those with a previous pot-related conviction would no longer be penalized when applying for a job or face other hurdles. Any DNA material, retina scans, mugshots and some fingerprint records collected during their arrests would be destroyed.

• You would not be able to possess as much pot.

The original Assembly bill would have allowed an individual to possess up to 2 pounds of marijuana – enough for about 100 joints. The amended legislation filed on Friday reduces that to 3 ounces.

“Originally the poundage was a negotiating position, so I think we negotiated a fair amount for people to have access to,” Peoples-Stokes said.

• Taxes on marijuana would be higher.

Marijuana flowers would be taxed at $1 per gram, up from the original Legislature proposal of 62 cents. And leaves would be taxed at 25 cents per gram, up from 10 cents.

• Greater preference for sales licenses would be granted to those affected by prior marijuana convictions.

The previous version of the bill stipulated that the state would give priority to people with prior marijuana convictions when deciding to whom it would grant licenses to sell the drug.

The revised version expands that to include people who “had a parent, guardian, child, spouse, or dependent, or was a dependent of an individual” who was convicted of a marijuana-related crime.

• The state would invest in training police to recognize impaired drivers.

The state would spend $1 million a year for three years to train officers to identify people driving under the influence of drugs.

• The governor would get to appoint someone to oversee cannabis regulations.

The recent amendments would establish an Office of Cannabis Management, something Cuomo has advocated. That person would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, at a salary to be set by the Legislature. That office would oversee the growth, sale and distribution of hemp and medical marijuana, as well as recreational marijuana.

The original bill from the Legislature proposed a Bureau of Marijuana Policy, which would have comprised three members, all appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate, with no more than two bureau members belonging to the same political party. They each would have been paid $260 for each day of bureau work, or about $52,000 a year. That bureau would have overseen the regulation of recreational marijuana.

Krueger, the Senate sponsor of the marijuana bill, acknowledged that the marijuana push still has large hurdles to be resolved before lawmakers end their 2019 session on June 19.

“I still don’t have enough votes in the Senate, unless the Assembly passes it first and the governor comes out in full-throated support for this bill … then I feel like I could probably put it across the finish line,’’ said Krueger, who is chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

She said the amendments she and Peoples-Stokes introduced Friday evening were intended to capture many of the areas she believes the Legislature was able to work out with Cuomo administration officials during budget talks in March.

She noted the measure is still gaining support, such as the recent backing it received from some major labor organizations.

Peoples-Stokes said she’s hopeful.

I think that there’s always potential,” she said, “and I’m going to work toward that potential.”

News Staff Reporter Tom Precious contributed to this report.

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