Cuomo signs cannabis law

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation Wednesday morning legalizing adult-use marijuana. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

ALBANY — Recreational marijuana use for adults 21 years of age and older is legal in New York after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill Wednesday morning hours after it was delivered to his desk.

Legislators voted to pass the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, S.854-A/A.1248-A, late Tuesday night following several hours of debate in each chamber.

The historic measure immediately expunges previous marijuana-related convictions from New Yorkers’ records.

“This is a historic day in New York — one that rights the wrongs of the past by putting an end to harsh prison sentences, embraces an industry that will grow the Empire State’s economy, and prioritizes marginalized communities so those that have suffered the most will be the first to reap the benefits,” Cuomo said in a statement Wednesday after signing the bill. “This was one of my top priorities in this year’s State of the State agenda and I’m proud these comprehensive reforms address and balance the social equity, safety and economic impacts of legal adult-use cannabis. I thank both the Leader and the Speaker, and the tireless advocacy of so many for helping make today’s historic day possible.”

Assemblymembers discussed the bill that immediately expunges previous marijuana-related convictions from New Yorkers’ records for more than six hours, passing the measure after 10 p.m.

Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx; and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, announced a deal to legalize adult-use cannabis late Saturday.

“Passage of this bill will mean not just legalizing marijuana, but also investing in education and our communities, and it brings to an end decades of disproportionately targeting people of color under state and federal drug laws,” Speaker Heastie said. “I thank Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes for her years of advocacy and efforts to make this bill a reality. My colleagues and I knew it was important to do this the right way — in a way that would include those targeted and frequently excluded from the process. Now, this legal industry will create jobs across our state, including for those who have had their lives upended by years of unjust drug laws.”

Recreational marijuana sales will begin after April 1, 2022. Dispensaries and retailers are expected to open in the state in about 18 months.

Legalization will include a 13% cannabis excise tax, with 4% split between the county of sale — 1% — and 3% slated for the municipality of the dispensary.

Nine percent of the sale -price will go to the Cannabis Revenue Fund, which will be used to fund the Office of Cannabis Management and cover the costs of state agencies to apply and adapt to the MRTA. After administrative costs, 40% will go to the Community Grants Reinvestment Fund, 40% will support general education through the State Lottery Fund and 20% will be allocated to the Drug Treatment and Public Education Fund.

The Senate passed the measure with a vote of 40-23 late Tuesday afternoon. Three Democrats, Sens. Joseph Addabbo, Simcha Felder and Anna Kaplan, voted against the bill with 20 Republican colleagues.

“Today, New York stepped up and took transformative action to end the prohibition of adult-use marijuana,” Stewart-Cousins said. “This legislation is a momentous first step in addressing the racial disparities caused by the war on drugs that has plagued our state for too long. This effort was years in the making and we have finally achieved what many thought was impossible, a bill that legalizes marijuana while standing up for social equity, enhancing education and protecting public safety.”

The MRTA will create the Office of Cannabis Management and the Cannabis Control Board will be established to regulate the cannabis industry and will consist of five members, three appointed by the governor, and one appointment by each of house of the Legislature.

The bill creates a number of adult-use cultivator, processor and distributor, nursery and microbusiness licenses, among others. At least 50% of licenses will be issued to social equity applicants involved in the adult-use program. Officials will give extra priority to low-income applicants impacted by the war on drugs who have, or a close relative has, a marijuana-related conviction.

Businesses that sell marijuana without the proper licensure can face up to $500 in fines per month of illegal possession, not to exceed $10,000.

“New York has taken the best practices from states across the country to design a truly unique program that will bring a new and equitable industry to grow our local tax base and generate business opportunities for our small farmers and minority-owned ventures,” Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, said after voting in favor of the measure. “Through this legislation, we can also begin to right the devastating wrongs of the failed War on Drugs, which has disproportionately harmed communities of color.”

More than 800,000 New Yorkers have been charged with marijuana-related offenses over the last two decades.

About 94% of people in 2020 charged with marijuana-related arrests in New York City were Black or Latino.

Roughly 10% of marijuana users are Black, 12% are Latino and as much as 25% are white.

“For far too long, enforcement of drug policies have disproportionately targeted communities of color, sending young people to prison and destroying futures for behaviors that are shrugged off or completely ignored in white communities,” said Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, D-Hudson, who voted in favor of legalization. “My vote to legalize adult-use marijuana in the state of New York is a commitment to end those racial disparities and failed drug policies, as well as to bring new resources to our communities to educate about substance use and abuse, to create new jobs in a new industry, to allow local farmers to expand their crops to produce locally grown cannabis and to give veterans and others suffering from trauma more options to help with recovery.”

Barrett will work with first responders, businesses, schools and health care providers to address unanswered questions, especially about measuring impairment while driving or operating heavy equipment.

“While this is landmark legislation for our state, I know there is still work to be done,” she said.

Republicans largely oppose the measure, and cited public safety and health concerns during Tuesday’s debates.

Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, voted against the measure because of safety concerns. She cited a Journal of the American Medical Association report that showed an additional 75 annual deaths in Colorado traffic accidents since the state legalized recreational marijuana in 2012.

“In states such as Oregon and California, the biggest challenge after marijuana was legalized has been roadway safety and how to properly hold accountable people who endanger themselves, and others, while driving impaired by marijuana,” Jordan said. “Studies show that marijuana adversely impacts reaction time, hand-eye coordination, depth perception, and increases sleepiness – and accurate roadside scientific tests do not exist yet.”

Other states have seen increases in violence and crime and an increasingly thriving black market since legalizing cannabis for adult use, Jordan said.

“This legislation ignores input from law enforcement and district attorneys and fails to effectively address the issue of people driving while impaired, potentially placing lives in danger in every community across the state,” she added. “This bill will dramatically increase the chances that young children will be exposed or have access to marijuana, a fact that has been demonstrated in other states that have legalized marijuana. The bill also fails to include adequate safeguards to ensure workplace safety.”

The senator noted the state Sheriff’s Association, the state Parent Teacher Association and the state Medical Society oppose the legalization of marijuana.

Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, echoed concerns about increased impaired driving.

“This bill does not address the issue of reliably assessing driver impairment in a meaningful way, and instead places an arbitrary deadline on the creation of a reliable roadside impairment testing protocol,” Tague said Wednesday. “As some states have lived with legalization for nearly a decade now, they still haven’t developed any procedure or technology that can reliably tell if a driver is impaired by THC, so I am not confident the state will be able to do so by the end of next year as the bill intends to. We have consequently seen increased rates of driver impairment following legalization in these states.”

Officials have argued the legislation would help farmers, but Tague, a former dairy farmer, is doubtful it will help state agriculture.

“...It only includes vague language about providing licenses to ‘distressed farmers’ without defining which farmers would qualify as ‘distressed’ within the text of the bill,” the assemblyman said. “The fact of the matter is that many farms are ‘distressed’ in the aftermath of this pandemic, and this bill just doesn’t go far enough in helping farmers, while also jeopardizing public safety. It is not a bill I can support.”

Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, said many people would celebrate the passage and signing of the MRTA, but all the Legislature did was vote to create new problems.

“Democrats will claim victory, but they ignore the inherent dangers associated with their decision,” Barclay said. “Legalizing marijuana guarantees young people will have greater access to a drug they shouldn’t be anywhere near. The minute this becomes readily available, the safety risks in our communities and on our roadways will increase exponentially.”

Barclay criticized leaders for rushing the measure because of the state’s $15 billion revenue deficit.

“While this may eventually improve the state’s bottom line, it will come at the expense of public health and safety,” Barclay said. “Over the past year, we have seen our friends, families and neighbors struggle in more ways than one: Reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, fighting health issues associated with smoking and the ongoing battle of the opioid epidemic. This legislation is harmful and counterintuitive to combating addiction and decades-long anti-drug efforts. Simply put, today’s vote to legalize marijuana was a step in the wrong direction.”

Marijuana sales are expected to bring $350 million to the state per year, and the industry could create between 30,000 and 60,000 jobs.

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