ALBANY – Efforts to create a complex regulatory system that will bring fully legal retail marijuana sales to New York State are suddenly moving again.
And all it took was a change of address for the previous resident of the Executive Mansion.
Less than a week after taking over from Andrew M. Cuomo, Gov. Kathy Hochul has already discussed with legislative leaders how to jump-start the marijuana cultivation, distribution and sales program created in March.
Hochul is expected to do something that Cuomo avoided since the law’s passage: begin a required regulatory process that can commence soon after she picks an executive director and board chair of the new Office of Cannabis Management. That person must iron out final regulatory details of what will become a multibillion-dollar industry.
“They are definitely prioritizing this," State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, said of the Hochul administration’s push to get the marijuana program going.
“The good thing is that there is a new governor and she has agreed to move the issue forward," added Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat.
The two lawmakers authored the law approved earlier this year that immediately decriminalized the possession of up to 3 ounces of marijuana for people 21 and over, and created a new, regulated and taxed system for retail sales of the drug.
Krueger and Peoples-Stokes spoke with Hochul shortly before she became governor last week. Both said they are satisfied Hochul is moving to undo the delay the program saw the past five months under Cuomo.
Political benefits for Hochul
For Hochul, the focus not only will please Democrats in the Legislature who pushed through the marijuana legalization, but also liberal Democratic voters she needs to woo early and often in her new administration if she hopes to achieve a primary-free path to her next political goal: a general election contest for a full term in November 2022.
Even if Hochul acts swiftly, both Krueger and Peoples-Stokes say it will be another 18 months until marijuana retail sales might begin. That’s because a multistep process must occur to approve regulations to implement the law before growers and sellers can get licenses.
Proponents have been disappointed by what lawmakers and advocates say was foot-dragging by Cuomo. He reluctantly backed efforts years ago to legalize medical marijuana and was opposed, for years, to a broader legalization effort.
“It’s about time," said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based group that presses for changes in drug laws nationwide.
“New Yorkers have been clear that cannabis is a critical criminal justice issue that the administration should be prioritizing. And they’ve also been clear that they want to see the communities that have been most impacted governing the new market and the larger regulatory institution. It makes sense, since women were at the forefront of leading this reform, that the first woman governor would be the one to get it done," she said.
Hochul to push regulatory scheme
Cuomo eased his marijuana opposition as public opinion polls shifted and more states enacted cannabis legalization.
The March legislation was part one. To be implemented, regulations concerning thousands of specific details must be created by the agency overseeing the program.
But that new agency has yet to be created. As a first step, the governor must nominate an executive director and a board chair; both need State Senate approval. The Senate and Assembly get one appointment each and the governor then also gets two other direct appointments.
Soon after passage in March, the Legislature and Cuomo sparred over Cuomo’s choice for an executive director of the new agency. That person would, in the words of one stakeholder, be the potential “Robert Moses” of the state’s future regulated marijuana industry, a reference to the man who essentially controlled New York as an unelected bureaucrat for decades. The agency head will oversee the new "adult-use" sales system, an expanded medical marijuana program, and the agricultural hemp industry.
Krueger said it was made clear to Cuomo that his choice – whose lack of experience, among other things, with such a huge new program came into question – would not be confirmed.
So, nothing happened. Cuomo, facing a barrage of scandals that just kept mounting since the spring, stopped any movement on the new program.
Few were surprised, though. While various marijuana expansion laws were passed during the Cuomo years, Krueger said Cuomo had to come kicking and screaming. “He was extremely ambivalent about all the issues tied to cannabis," she said.
But Hochul, she said, now wants to move “with some expediency” on the matter.
Why is Hochul different from Cuomo?
“Well, maybe it’s because I asked her, that’s one reason why," People-Stokes said of a conversation she had with Hochul just before she became governor. Hochul, she said, agreed that the delay would be harmful to the anxious-to-expand marijuana marketplace, which includes people and entities in low-income, minority neighborhoods given special access to become part of the new marijuana sector.
Krueger said the regulatory process must begin in earnest for another reason behind the Legislature’s intent with the law: to put a dent in the illicit marijuana trade in which consumers can’t be certain what is in the drug they are purchasing.
“It’s extremely confusing out there," she said of constituents every day who ask her to clear up the current law that permits people to smoke marijuana in many public places without fear of arrest but that still makes it illegal – until the state-regulated program is underway – to purchase the drug.
Jeremy Unruh, senior vice president at Chicago-based PharmaCann, which operates medical marijuana facilities in New York, including one in Amherst, said there are “no-brainer” steps the state can take now with that program and not wait on the broader regulatory work. The March law gave greater discretion for physicians, for instance, to recommend marijuana for a patient and allow patients to be prescribed cannabis flowers that they can smoke instead of the more limited ways to consume the drug.
Unruh said New York is now in a “foot race” to gets its broader marijuana program in place before possible federal legislation is enacted that, he added, would not feature the various “social equity” licensing rules or tax provisions in the March New York law.
Marijuana foes raise concerns
Opponents, from the New York State PTA and medical organizations to law enforcement, pushed for years to try to stop the march to legalize marijuana. They raised concerns about a host of health and societal matters, including that: government should not be promoting – and profiting via tax systems – a drug that can be harmful to some people; that more people will become addicted in a state where some don’t have easy or affordable access to drug or mental health treatment; and that the illegal drug market will still keep operating underground in a more lucrative and untaxed marketplace.
The New York State Association of Chiefs of Police has had a direct message of concern: traffic safety.
“Other states that have legalized marijuana have seen dramatic increases in crashes and traffic fatalities related to persons driving under the influence of marijuana. We would simply ask that the legislature allocate funds to combat the certain increase in driving under the influence of marijuana," said Patrick Phelan, executive director of the Rochester-based, statewide group representing large and small police chiefs.
Phelan said there is also a “dire need” for drug recognition experts, which are specially trained police officers called upon when a driver is suspected of being under the influence of drugs. He said the number of such experts now is “completely inadequate” even before legal retail sales commence.
Also, he said, the regulatory process needs to address measures to determine impairment by marijuana use and must also “make a determination as to what the level of impairment really is that makes a person unable to operate a motor vehicle.”
The Hochul administration did not reveal its timetable for nominations to the new Office of Cannabis Management. A spokesperson said Hochul officials are “actively working” to ensure the new agency and its board “can begin implementing a safe, equitable and transparent adult-use cannabis industry as soon as possible.”
The official said Hochul is committed to naming individuals to the agency “with diverse experiences."
The administration envisions, as Democratic lawmakers do, that the players in the new industry will include everyone from small businesses to new entrepreneurs to people with past marijuana convictions to “legacy” operators – the term used to describe people now in the illegal marijuana drug trade.
Unions play key role
Representatives of workers at existing medical marijuana companies – which will be vying for recreational marijuana licenses – also believe movement will occur soon with Hochul.
“This has legs and is starting to move," said Joe Fontano, secretary/treasurer of Local 338 of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union/United Food and Commercial Workers union, whose membership, located from Buffalo to Long Island, includes about 500 workers at companies licensed to grow and dispense medical marijuana in the state.
Fontano said his union shares the same goals as other proponents about the law’s broader social objectives, but also wants to ensure workers have certain wage and job protection benefits. The new law, like the 2014 state medical marijuana law, has labor components, such as requiring marijuana license applicants to have labor peace agreements in place with unions.
Fontano said the union’s goal is to create “career-oriented” positions in the new three-tiered marketplace of cultivators, distributors and retailers.