New York is Finally Considering Legalizing Cannabis

New York has significant rural areas where cannabis cultivation is possible — and rural and upstate New York both have plenty of areas suffering economic deprivation that may be less inclined to reject a marijuana-related business.

New York seems like a great place to open up to recreational marijuana. And it is — if for no other reason than the most obvious, which is that everywhere cannabis remains illegal is a good place for legal, regulated, adult-use cannabis.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo intends to make New York the 11th state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

Over the past year, city and state officials have taken steps toward possible legalization, with public listening sessions and government reports.

The vast majority of voters in New York state support legalizing marijuana and erasing past criminal convictions for possession, according to a Quinnipiac poll released Jan. 24.

That support crosses racial, gender, political and regional demographics, with every surveyed group in favor of the legalization push, with 65 percent in support statewide, 31 percent against, and the remainder unsure, according to poll analyst Mary Snow of Quinnipiac University, which conducted the survey earlier this month.

“We’re seeing New Yorkers in support of legalization,” she said. “There are some concerns being expressed, for example, about potential increase in car accidents, but overall New Yorkers say they would be in favor of legalizing marijuana and also be OK with it sold in their communities.”

Cuomo has painted a broad picture of legalizing marijuana in 2019, but details on how it would all come together were sparse.

In his budget address earlier this year, Cuomo said the legal age to consume marijuana should be set at 21, and he projected that tax revenue from legalizing the drug could be as much as $300 million once the plan is fully rolled out in 2023. However, the state wouldn’t see any tax revenue until 2021, when the state is expected to net just $83 million.

The governor also suggested that communities of color, which have been disproportionately affected by the policing of marijuana, should benefit from the economic opportunities made available by a burgeoning industry – a strategy that has been widely supported by advocacy groups and progressive lawmakers.

“Let’s create an industry that serves the community that paid the price, and not rich corporations,” Cuomo said. “Now we just have to put it in place.”

All counties could opt out, but only large cities with populations of more than about 100,000 or more would be eligible to do so. The intent is to make it clear where recreational marijuana use is allowed by taking advantage of clear signage that identifies big cities and county lines, said Cuomo spokesman Jason Conwall.

But the New York State Association of Counties wants more information on what it called “a complex area of public policy.”

“It does make sense in some instances for a regional government to have the ability to make decisions like this and we are looking at this, but we are sort of neutral on it now,” said NYSAC Executive Director Stephen J. Acquario. “We’re trying to figure out the revenue side of it as well.”

More details about the state’s push to legalize marijuana will be made available in upcoming budget bills, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has said.

Cuomo’s decision to include marijuana legalization in his budget follows a series of public hearings in 2018 that endorsed decriminalization efforts after the state Department of Health  issued a report advocating a change in law.

The six-month Health Department study, commissioned by Cuomo, was released in July and determined that the benefits of legal marijuana outweigh the risks. The department also determined that legalizing the drug for New Yorkers older than 21 would not significantly raise smoking rates and could help reduce racial disparities in police enforcement.

De Blasio, who had not previously endorsed full recreational legalization, reversed course with the release in December of the 71-page report from the Mayor’s Task Force on Cannabis Legalization.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get a historic issue right for future New Yorkers,” de Blasio said in a letter attached to the report. “Legal cannabis is coming to New York State.”

The  task force recommends the taxation of marijuana sales in New York City, restriction of purchase and possession to those 21 and older and expunging of marijuana-related convictions.

The mayor had previously backed efforts to reduce the effects of marijuana enforcement, and as of Sept. 1, most New Yorkers found smoking in public face criminal summonses,  rather than undergoing an arrest.

“Nobody’s destiny should hinge on a minor nonviolent offense,” de Blasio said in June when announcing the policy change. “Neighborhood policing has helped to bring officers and community together, but we still have more work to do to right the wrongs in the criminal justice system. This new policy will help reduce unnecessary arrests, while making our city fairer and safer.”

In addition, close to 3,000 outstanding misdemeanor marijuana possessions and smoking cases that date to 1978 have been dismissed and sealed. Vance’s office said 79 percent of those cases concerned people of color.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has continued a pilot program that largely excuses low-level marijuana smoking arrests. The number of cases accepted for prosecution in Brooklyn went from 349 in January to 29 in June, a 91 percent drop.

“Now it’s time for New York State to legalize, regulate and expunge,” said Vance. “District attorneys in Brooklyn, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Manhattan have shown that prosecutors can safely exercise their discretion and eliminate the needless collateral consequences associated with the criminalization of marijuana. But this shouldn’t be up to district attorneys alone — only our legislature can do justice for all 62 counties in New York State.”

Medical marijuana remains legal in New York state for patients who are certified by medical practitioners as having serious conditions, under the Compassionate Care Act. The conditions include cancer, AIDS and severe chronic pain  among other ailments.

The earliest legalization could begin in New York, according to Cuomo’s proposal, is April 2020. And Cuomo’s vaguely defined plan needs approval in the state Legislature. Which is to say it might not suck — there is hope that it won’t. But there are also already too many signs that it might.

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