The on-again, off-again effort to legalize marijuana in New York is picking up new momentum, after state lawmakers unveiled a revised legislative package aimed at winning over weed skeptics, social justice advocates, and most crucially, Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The amended Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, released by State Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes on Friday, closely resembles the framework put forth by the governor earlier this year. That proposal was dropped from the budget agreement in April, and with the session set to end next month, the prospects for legalization looked bleak. But the bill's sponsors say new compromises could push legalization over the finish line in the next few weeks.
"I think traction is building," Krueger told Gothamist on Tuesday. "When it didn't make it in the budget some people thought that meant goodbye. But we took awhile to put a new bill together that reflects what grew out of discussions with colleagues in both houses, and discussions with the governor."
As conceived in the governor's proposal, the amended law would create a Cuomo-appointed Office of Cannabis Management to regulate both recreational and medicinal marijuana, as well as hemp products like CBD. Taxes on the drug would be upped to $1 per gram, and the state would commit to spending $3 million over three years on training police officers to spot stoned drivers. Under the amended bill, the amount of marijuana a person can legally possess would decrease to three ounces, down from the previous version's threshold of two pounds. The age for adult use is set at 21.
Marijuana prohibition is often used as the pretext to feed black and brown people into President Trump’s deportation machine.
We join fellow NYC defenders in calling for the state to pass the revised Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. pic.twitter.com/RHdnQxz5AF
— The Bronx Defenders (@BronxDefenders) May 28, 2019
But the revised package also includes concessions to advocates on the left, some of whom have been pushing for a more justice-oriented approach to legalization. The bill stipulates that 50 percent of all marijuana revenue would be deposited in a grant reinvestment fund for communities "disproportionately affected by past federal and state drug policies." Those communities would also have access to "incubator programs" offering loans and assistance in joining the potentially lucrative market. And New Yorkers would be able to grow up to six marijuana plants for personal use.
Moreover, new language in the bill would expunge the records of New York residents convicted of low-level marijuana offenses. Previous proposals had called for those records to be sealed, meaning they could still be accessed by members of law enforcement in certain situations.
This change earned plaudits from a coalition of public defender groups on Tuesday, who noted in a press release that marijuana arrest records have "curtailed the opportunities of countless predominately young Black and Latinx New Yorkers." In the first three months of this year, black and hispanic people accounted for 92 percent of low-level marijuana arrests in the city.
According to Melissa Moore of the Drug Policy Alliance, the challenges of record-clearing have been among the biggest lessons gleaned from watching other states go through the legalization process. "Any efforts to address records must be as robust and comprehensive as possible," she told Gothamist. "It's beneficial, as we're going into the ending sprint of sessions, to be starting from a place that takes into account some of the concerns that members voiced during the budget process."
Cuomo doesn't seem optimistic about the new marijuana bill passing before the end of session. He says the votes aren't there in the Senate.
— Dan Clark (@DanClarkReports) May 28, 2019
But as advocates framed the new updates as a worthy compromise, the governor has yet to give any indication that he is ready to re-prioritize marijuana legalization.
"I just don't believe—and the senators say—they don't have the votes, and at the end of the day, if you don't have the votes, you don't have the votes," Cuomo told WNYC's Brian Lehrer on Tuesday morning.
Democratic leaders in the senate say they've made no such declaration. Several senators previously told Gothamist/WNYC that they were waiting to see the revised bill before making a final decision; those lawmakers are presumably still pouring over the 109-page document that dropped on Friday.
According to the bill's sponsors, the votes for legalization are out there, though they may be contingent on Cuomo's support.
"I have no crystal ball. But the situation would need to be as follows: the Assembly passes the bill, the governor offers full-throated support, and then the Senate can hopefully pull it together," predicted Krueger. "I need [Governor Cuomo] to come out with strong support for the package, and I don't think we've heard that yet."
Asked why the governor might not work with fellow Democrats on their final push for marijuana legalization this year, Krueger replied, "I never try to make assumptions about why Andrew Cuomo does anything."
A spokesperson for the Governor's Office did not respond to Gothamist's inquiries about his position on the revised bill.
Additional reporting by Fred Mogul. Listen to his radio segment on the new proposal below.