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Legalize Marijuana, Governor Says

Wed, 02/05/2020 - 19:47

Cuomo proposes Office of Cannabis Management

The legalization of recreational use of marijuana for adults is, for the second year in a row, included in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s executive budget. 

The legislation would establish a regulated adult-use cannabis program that the governor said would protect public health, provide consumer protection, ensure public safety, address social justice concerns, and invest tax revenue. Included in his Making Progress Happen agenda is a “first-in-nation comprehensive cannabis regulatory framework,” to be administered by a newly established Office of Cannabis Management.

The governor’s Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act would apply to all cannabis, cannabis-related products, and medical cannabis within the state. Sales to retail dispensaries would be taxed at 20 percent.

“This is a high priority for him,” Assemblyman Fred Thiele said, noting that the proposal had been put forward last year but was removed from the final budget. 

“I believe it is best done in the bud-get,” Governor Cuomo said last month in his State of the State address. “I said that last year. I believe the budget is the opportunity, frankly, to make some tough decisions and work through tough issues that, without the budget, can often languish, and I suggest that we get it done in the budget.”

Mr. Thiele said he has never liked the idea of the governor including major policy initiatives as part of the budget. The assemblyman was also critical of Mr. Cuomo for including the controversial criminal justice reform laws in the current budget. As for how he will vote on the proposal, he has not yet taken a position. “I don’t have any strong philosophical opposition to the legalization of marijuana, but I do think the details matter,” he said. “I wouldn’t consider myself to be an advocate and I’m not opposed.”

Legalizing the adult use of marijuana would mean a financial windfall for the state. Governor Cuomo has estimated it could bring in $300 million a year in taxes and billions more in economic activity when fully implemented. 

At the beginning of the year, state officials projected a $6 billion deficit, largely thanks to overspending on Medicaid. Based on the most recent tax receipts, an additional $2 billion is expected, bringing down the deficit to $4 billion, Mr. Thiele said.

Closing the budget gap is certainly a priority for the Legislature. But the “bone of contention,” Mr. Thiele said, has been how to spend the extra money.

“Could the state use revenue? The state could always use revenue,” he said. The rationale for a lot of proposals — from sports betting to the legalization of marijuana — is revenue, but Mr. Thiele suggested that officials have to look at the merits individually. 

Under the Compassionate Care Act, passed in 2014, it became legal for New Yorkers with prescriptions from qualified medical providers to use marijuana to treat a limited number of ailments.

In a July 2018 report on the impact of regulated cannabis, the Department of Health found that its positive aspects outweighed potential negatives. Benefits included providing government oversight of the production, testing, labeling, distribution, and sale of cannabis, while also allowing the state to set age and quantity restrictions. A regulated program would also reduce racial disparities, the governor’s office said, in incarceration rates. Of more than 800,000 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana in New York, the majority involved people of color.

While steam has been building for another marijuana legalization push, various bills to that effect failed in the last legislative session. Marijuana was decriminalized, however, reducing the charge for possession. Those found in possession of two ounces or less are now charged with a violation, rather than a misdemeanor, which is considered criminal. 

With the 2021 budget process just beginning, Mr. Thiele said it was “far from certain that marijuana legalization is going to happen this year,” adding, though, that its passage in the next couple of years is probably inevitable. He noted that there is still a lot of resistance to legalization, especially in the education, law enforcement, and substance-abuse treatment communities, both here and upstate. 

In his discussions last year with local officials, he said, both Nassau and Suffolk County leaders indicated they would exercise the right for local governments to opt out of the legislation. “I haven’t heard from them so far this year. A lot of local government officials on the town level have expressed concern.”

On Friday, the New York State Bar Association endorsed the recreational use of marijuana for adults and approved a 23-page report from its committee on cannabis law. Among its recommendations were that the legislation include U.S. Department of Agriculture-mandated cannabis testing; a comprehensive state Office of Cannabis Management, provisions for local municipality “opt-out,” “social equity” provisions, state tax, and advertising and marketing guidelines. 

“While policy continues to evolve at the federal level, the committee also believes the most effective way to navigate this complex issue is for any comprehensive cannabis proposal to include hemp, medical marijuana, and adult use,” said a statement from Aleece Burgio, who co-chairs the committee. Nowhere did members find a model cannabis regulation that it could recommend for New York to adopt. 

Mr. Thiele said many questions remain: What will be the rules regarding point of sale? Where will facilities be located? How will the new law affect drivers and criminal charges such as driving under the influence? 

Education advocates wonder, said the assemblyman, how legalizing marijuana may exacerbate other concerns. For example: “They are dealing with a vaping crisis now, and there’s still an opioid crisis out there.”

Especially after bail reform was pushed through in last year’s budget, he said, “there’s concern about is this being rushed? Will the implementation be done properly?”  

“The details matter on legislation like this, and a lot of the details are missing,” said the assemblyman. “There remain a lot of unanswered questions, compounded by the fact that this is an election year.”

A forum on New York State’s emerging cannabis programs will be held on Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Masonic Lodge in Sag Harbor. 

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