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It's a deal: Marijuana legalization in New York headed for approval

It's a deal: Marijuana legalization in New York headed for approval

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“What we’re doing in New York State really hasn’t been done in any other state. We’re making an upfront commitment to the people and families who suffered through decades of mass incarceration. … It’s the main reason I introduced the legislation," Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes said.

ALBANY – A deal to permit the legal sale and use of marijuana in New York State was finalized Saturday night by legislators and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, paving the way for highly regulated cultivation, distribution and retail sales of the drug to start in about two years or sooner.

The effort, pushed for decades by some Democrats who control the Assembly, would permit the state to:

• Tax the product

• Ban police using marijuana odor as a reason for searching a vehicle of someone pulled over on suspicion of driving while impaired

• Allow for residents to grow marijuana plants

• Drive millions each year to public school funding and low-income communities

“I think it’s significant and definitely historic," Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat and lead sponsor of the Assembly marijuana bill, said of the millions of marijuana tax revenues that will be invested in any range of initiatives – from health care programs to building new houses – in low-income neighborhoods.

“What we’re doing in New York State really hasn’t been done in any other state. We’re making an upfront commitment to the people and families who suffered through decades of mass incarceration," she said, noting that was the main reason she introduced the legislation.

The full language of the bill was not made public until late Saturday night, but most of its details of the cannabis legalization plans emerged in recent days as state lawmakers and the governor negotiated its terms.

"Legalizing adult-use cannabis isn't just about creating a new market that will provide jobs and benefit the economy – it's also about justice for long-marginalized communities and ensuring those who've been unfairly penalized in the past will now get a chance to benefit," Cuomo said in a statement emailed out shortly before midnight confirming the deal. "I look forward to signing this legislation into law."

The legislation is expected to be voted on early next week.

Then, a long process is expected to create various rules and a new state agency to oversee everything from marijuana cultivation companies to retail sales and marijuana "lounges."

$350 million in annual tax revenue expected

Backers pitch the historic expansion of marijuana drug laws as a social equity and justice issue after, they say, the arrests and imprisonment of many minorities over the years for possessing the drug. They say it will attack the thriving illicit marijuana drug market, though it remains to be seen how the high tax rates slapped on the drug’s sales will compete with the illegal trade products.

Opponents point to the potential of making the drug even more available to minors, more fatal car accidents and rising crime rates.

For the state, it is also about money: an estimated $350 million in annual marijuana tax revenue. The financial plan does not expect that level to be reached until sometime after 2025.

Taxes on marijuana will be high, raising questions about whether the state-sanctioned drug sales will be able to compete with the illicit drug marketplace. There are several taxes, including a 9% state sales tax and then a 4% tax with its revenues going to local governments. The newly amended bill, introduced late Saturday night, will also permit lounges, open to the public, with bar-like atmospheres where people can use the drug.

New York becomes the 15th state, along with the District of Columbia, to legalize marijuana. Based on the history of those other states, as well as Canada, officials believe it will take between 18 and 24 months before legal marijuana retail sales will occur in New York.

The final deal Saturday came after days of marathon talks .

Proponents who have pushed for legalization for years at the state Capitol cheered the sweeping new marijuana measure.

“Advancing legalization in New York also puts another nail in the coffin of the war on drugs that has devastated so many communities across the state. By comprehensively addressing the harms of past criminalization, this legislation will create one of the most ambitious marijuana legalization programs in the country," said Melissa Moore, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

The group is part of Start Smart-NY Coalition, a statewide marijuana legalization organization whose members include Black church leaders, prisoner rights organizations, the Working Families Party, a Quaker meeting house on Long Island and Buffalo Legal Aid.

Opponents have included law enforcement, such as sheriffs and district attorneys, the American Medical Association and its New York chapter and county health officials. They say the measure will, among other effects, be of special harm to minors – even if the looming law only legalizes marijuana for adults 21 and over – at a time when the state is still dealing with a vaping and opioid crisis among teenagers.

“Today is a sad day for our kids, and we are truly disappointed in the many who supported this legislation," said Kyle Belokopitsky, executive director of the New York State PTA.

How sales tax is split divides localities

The agreement spawned differences of opinion on how localities will share in sales taxes collected through marijuana sales.

Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive and president of a statewide group of county executives, said the final deal only gives counties 1% of the sales tax revenues, which he said is significantly less than the 3% counties get from alcohol sales.

Molinaro, who ran against Cuomo in 2018, said legalizing marijuana will “dramatically increase the need and demand” for a variety of county services in the areas of public health and public safety.

But other forms of local governments said they support the way the taxes would be distributed – which would give cities, towns and villages 3% of the sales tax revenues compared with the counties’ 1% share.

Peter Baynes, executive director of the New York Conference of Mayors, said it will be cities, towns and villages, not counties, that will most significantly feel the costs of marijuana through expenses pertaining to law enforcement and code compliance work.

“NYCOM’s view is that this new cannabis tax is not the traditional local sales tax and shouldn’t be treated as such," Baynes said.

Medical marijuana program would change

The agreement also calls for changes to the state’s medical marijuana program, making it available for people with additional medical conditions than now permitted, allowing the smoking of the drug – instead of oil, capsules, vaping and other forms – and provides some additional authority for physicians and others who can prescribe the drug to their patients.

For-profit companies now participating in New York's medical marijuana program as growers and processors will be allowed to also apply for recreational marijuana licenses, a major financial and lobbying victory for that growing industry.

The agreement comes after Cuomo only four years ago called marijuana a dangerous "gateway" drug.

Details emerged during negotiations

A number of the deal's details were previously reported this week by The Buffalo News. The bill, for instance, permits people to legally possess up to 3 ounces of marijuana.

A deal was announced Saturday night at about 10 by Peoples-Stokes and Krueger. But it took until midnight to be sanctioned by the 3 leaders of the government: Democrats Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who negotiated the final snags while under quarantine with Covid.

"There were many important aspects of this legislation that needed to be addressed correctly -- especially the racial disparities that have plagued our state's response to marijuana use and distribution as well as ensuring public safety -- and I am proud we have reached the finish line,'' Stewart-Cousins said late Saturday.

Heastie said the bill doesn't just legalize marijuana, but "it rights decades of disproportionately targeting people of color, ensures they are included in the legal marijuana industry and reinvests in education and in communities that have been harmed."

Among other provisions, the final deal would permit:

• Marijuana to be grown at people's homes; 3 mature and 3 immature plants can be grown per person, with up to a total of 12 plants per household. For people in the medical marijuana program, they can grow plants at home 6 months after the law takes effect, while what state officials call "adult recreational" marijuana home grown provisions would kick in 12 months after that.

• Local governments can "opt out" of the law's provisions to permit the opening of "adult social-use consumption sites," otherwise known as marijuana lounges, but residents can seek to override such bans via a referendum process.

• Remaining marijuana tax revenues, after various expenses, would be divided up among: 40% for state education, 20% percent for drug treatment and a marijuana public health campaign and 40% for community reinvestment programs in low-income, minority communities . Minority and women-owned businesses seeking to participate in the various for-profit marijuana sales, growing and distribution marketplace will get extra points when applying to a new state agency for a license.

Peoples-Stokes said a key part of the deal is giving an advantage in the future selection of marijuana cultivators, processors, distributors and retailers to minorities, women and financially distressed farmers. She said it will also help give some already involved in the illegal marijuana trade "an opportunity to come above ground" and participate in a government-sanctioned business.

Negotiators spent much of the past week going back and forth over how the state's impaired driving laws would change. The final deal includes a variety of changes, including studying how marijuana impairment is decided and whether there are reliable devices to check on someone's level of marijuana impairment.

"I know we live in a world where law enforcement is important and necessary," Peoples-Stokes said. "I don't want to be driving where people can't be challenged for driving while impaired."

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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