ALBANY – More than 50 years after the effort began at the State Capitol to legalize marijuana, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday signed into law a measure ending New York’s criminal war on marijuana.
Effective Thursday, it is legal for a person to possess up to 3 ounces of marijuana. It is, for now, still illegal to sell marijuana in New York State.
The measure passed, mostly along party lines in the Democratic-controlled Legislature on Tuesday night and was rushed to the governor for his signature Wednesday morning.
It calls for legal possession of up to 3 ounces of the drug, as well as a new state-overseen system that in about two years will feature the legal cultivation, processing, distribution, sales and use of marijuana. It provides a new pot of money – 40% of what’s eventually projected to be about $350 million in annual sales and excise tax revenues for the state – to be distributed for various health, education, infrastructure and job creation programs in low-income, minority communities affected by disproportionately high rates of arrest and incarceration of mostly younger people.
“The social justice initiative will provide equity to positively transform disenfranchised communities of color for the better," Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat and sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, said Wednesday.
Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat and sponsor of the Senate bill who took up the issue eight years ago, said she got interested in the issue when she saw 50,000 Black and Latino young people getting arrested each year for marijuana possession and sales when white youths in her East Side of Manhattan district were not being stopped and searched by police.
“The victory for me and why I felt so good last night is the thought that we’re finally going to get rid of this," she said of what she called an unfair system of enforcement for a widely used drug, especially among whites.
Here is a look at some of the effective dates of some major provisions in the new law:
Expungement of past criminal marijuana convictions/arrests
The new law will allow people convicted of marijuana-related crimes to have their records expunged. That process must begin “promptly," but the law states it must be undertaken by state and local courts no later than two years from Wednesday’s bill signing.
State-approved marijuana sales
The new law sets up a complex legal and regulatory program in which the state will determine a range of matters, including where marijuana retailers can locate, and who gets to grow, process, distribute and sell marijuana and cannabis products. That process is set to legally begin no sooner than March 1, 2022. No one expects sales to begin for between 18 and 24 months.
Possession of marijuana
The law permits sales and use by adults over the age of 21, mirroring the alcohol laws. Effective immediately, people can legally possess up to 3 ounces of marijuana, or 24 grams of concentrated cannabis. Possessing over 3 ounces could result in a top fine of $125. Possessing over 16 ounces is punishable with a misdemeanor. At their places of residence, people can possess up to 5 pounds of marijuana.
Some of the possession amounts go into effect immediately, some not until April 1, 2022. If the state’s overall new marijuana cultivation, distribution and sales system is not in place by then, some of the higher possession timetables would also move back, but there would be no penalty for possession of up to 3 ounces. Small amounts of marijuana possession were previously decriminalized in New York and result in, at most, the issuance of a violation. Also, the law calls for the removal of marijuana on the state’s controlled substance schedule.
Proponents say the law makes it legal to smoke marijuana anywhere where tobacco can be legally smoked; many indoor and outdoor areas already prohibit smoking. Technically, the marijuana that someone would smoke is not, itself, legal because it has often been purchased via the black market; some questions remain about marijuana purchased by New Yorkers at legal outlets in states that have legalized the sale of the drug, though federal law still prohibits the crossing of state lines with marijuana.
The law permits an individual to grow three “mature” plants and three “immature” marijuana plants, or a maximum of 12 plants per household, no matter how many people reside there. The plants must stay on an owner’s or renter’s property, or indoors, and “reasonable” steps must be taken to secure the plants to prevent access by anyone 21 and under. Medical marijuana patients will be able to start growing their own plants at home in six months, while at-home “adult-use” marijuana plants can be grown starting 18 months after the opening of the first retail dispensaries expected to pop up around the state.
The state’s medical marijuana program also will see changes, including becoming available to patients with more kinds of medical conditions, the addition of smoking as a way for eligible patients to consume marijuana and doubles to a 60-day supply the amount of marijuana that can be prescribed. In a major lobbying win for large commercial marijuana companies now participating in the medical marijuana program, they also will be able to go into business in the new adult use marijuana market. That, too, can legally happen April 1, 2022, if the state is ready with its regulatory system by then.
Local opt-out laws
The law permits not only retail sales of marijuana but also allows for open “social consumption” sites, or pot lounges, where people can smoke a joint or vape product or chew on a gummy bear in a clublike atmosphere. Cities, towns and villages can, however, choose to not permit such retail or club facilities. They must do so by the end of this year. However, someone can commence a public referendum process to, if successful, overrule the local government’s decision.
Office of Cannabis Management
Overseeing the range of the new marijuana supply and sales chain will be a new state agency with vast responsibilities, from who gets the marijuana licenses to specifics about advertising and packaging of marijuana products to be sold in New York. It will be overseen, in much of its work, by a five-member board, three of whom are to be selected by the governor and one apiece by the leaders of the Assembly and Senate. A 13-member advisory board also will be created. Those members will include state agency heads, an expert in public and behavioral health, farming, substance abuse disorder treatment and someone who had been incarcerated previously for breaking marijuana laws.
Driving while impaired
A major fight over the new law was over the effect marijuana legalization will have on impaired driving incidents by drivers who are high. Backers said there is no real agreement on a definition of marijuana-impaired driving, while opponents say there is not yet a reliable field test that police can definitively use to determine the level of marijuana in someone's system. The law calls for a state study on the issue of impaired driving to be completed by March 31, 2022.