New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers have hammered out a deal that will legalize recreational marijuana, a longstanding goal of many advocacy groups who believe the state could make millions in tax revenue from the industry, according to The New York Times.
Marijuana is already legal in multiple states and has grown into a $4.2 billion dollar industry that has allowed states like California and Colorado to reap the benefits from the millions brought in through tax revenue.
Lawmakers in New York have tried for years to legalize marijuana but have often faced opposition from conservative politicians and Cuomo.
The bill would legalize marijuana by 2022, making New York the 15th state in the country to do so.
“When this bill is finally voted on and signed, New York will be able to say we have finally undone damaging criminal justice laws that accomplished nothing but ruining people’s lives. We will finally be able to say we’re going to have an industry for cannabis that assures people who buy the product that they are buying a legitimate product from legitimate companies,” State Senator Liz Krueger told The New York Times.
Marijuana will be legal for people over 21 and documents obtained by The New York Times show that the deal includes measures that would allow it to be delivered and used in clubs. There will also be other "consumption sites" where it can be used.
Average people will also be allowed to grow as many as six marijuana plants at home, indoors or outdoors.
Krueger explained to Bloomberg News that the tax structure would resemble alcohol and that lawmakers included a number of measures to make sure massive marijuana companies like Acreage Holdings, Columbia Care, Cresco Labs, Curaleaf and Green Thumb Industries did not dominate the industry.
Dispensaries in the state that already exists for medical marijuana would be allowed to add four more sites, two of which would have to go into "underserved areas" according to Bloomberg News.
Krueger added that small businesses would be prioritized, with the state only handing out overarching licenses for cultivation, processing, distributing and dispensing to small companies.
Now that a deal has been struck, lawmakers have to get into the thorny details and figure out how to regulate the industry to appease critics of legalization who raised concerns about teenagers using it and people driving while under the influence of marijuana. Experts anticipate the law to go into effect in about a year.
The state now has to create a taxation apparatus for the industry and an organization to manage the licenses that dispensaries and growers would need to operate. There are already tentative plans in place for a control board with five members that would manage the industry in New York.
Advocates of legalization have long said the conversation needed to be centered around recompense for those who have been arrested for marijuana and are still serving onerous sentences for having or selling the drug.
The bill also includes measures to make amends for the decades of arrests and harsh punishment levied against Black and brown people in the state.
Despite equal levels of usage, Black and brown people make up a disproportionate number of marijuana-related arrests, and the smell of the drug has often used been used as a pretense for unwarranted searches, according to The New York Times.
Additionally, the deal will allow the state to use some of the tax money accrued from marijuana sales to invest in Black and brown communities. There are also efforts being initiated to make sure the business licenses handed out for marijuana companies are given mostly to people of color.
“A percentage of revenue that is raised will get invested into the communities where the people who suffered mass incarceration come from and still live in many cases. For me this is a lot more than about raising revenue: It’s about investing in the lives of the people that have been damaged,” Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes said.
Under the current deal, 40% of tax revenue from the marijuana industry would be "reinvested" into communities that have been disproportionately ruined by the war on drugs and another 40% would go toward public education services. The final 20% would go to drug treatment and prevention.
When sold through retail outlets, marijuana would come with a 9% state tax and 4% local tax. Bloomberg News also reported that there would be a distributor tax of 3 cents per milligram of THC.
The New York Times also reported that the lawmakers created programs that would seek to help Black and brown communities get involved in the industry. "Equity programs" will offer grants, loans and programs to any person of color interested in the marijuana industry.
Half of the state's marijuana licenses would also go toward Black and brown people, women, disabled veterans and families affected by a member who went to prison based on convictions related to marijuana.
“We understand the ramifications of decades of incarceration of a people that actually ends up costing us, as a government, money. This community reinvestment could reverse that whole dynamic. We could reinvest in people’s lives,” Peoples-Stokes told Bloomberg News.
With the passing of the bill, it will no longer be illegal to have less than three ounces of marijuana and for people that have convictions for things that have become legal, their records will be automatically expunged.
Officials in Cuomo's office have previously estimated that marijuana legalization could provide the state with nearly $400 million in annual tax revenue, which the state sorely needs considering the massive budget gaps lawmakers are facing. The state makes billions off of the tourism industry but the coronavirus pandemic left hotels and Broadway theaters empty for most of 2020.
The need for tax revenue was one of many factors that pushed the legalization over the goal line. In addition to Cuomo's political troubles, there were also concerns raised because New Jersey legalized marijuana already, meaning it would take little for the drug to make its way over state lines.
“We are literally surrounded geographically by other states that are doing it. We just need to stay ahead of the times. Because we’re New Yorkers, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can speed this up,” Peoples-Stokes said in an interview with Bloomberg News.
Lawmakers are looking to vote on the law next week and many that spoke to The New York Times expressed surprise that Cuomo had buckled on many of the points that he had previously held out on.
Despite the benefits of the bill, there will be some new penalties added to the books under the deal. According to CNN, "impairment by cannabis" will be added to the list of offenses under "Driving While Ability Impaired" and it will be a Class D felony to have more than 10 pounds of marijuana flower or four pounds of concentrated cannabis
Communities across the state could also vote to opt-out of the law if voters don't want dispensaries in the area.
The bill will make a number of changes to the state's medical marijuana system and expand the number of illnesses that would be allowed to use the drug.
The New York Times quoted a report from the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association that said New York's cannabis industry is worth more than $4.5 billion and could reach nearly $6 billion by 2027. By 2023, the state could be bringing in $1.2 billion in tax revenue from the marijuana industry.
“We’ve been trying to legalize cannabis for three years. I’ve failed about every year. We’re close, but we’ve been close three times before,” Cuomo told reporters Wednesday, according to Bloomberg.
“We have passed the point of legalized cannabis. It’s in New Jersey. It’s in Massachusetts. To say we’re going to stop it is not an option; it’s already here…I believe New York is the progressive capital of the nation—not just because we say it is but because we perform that way. And legalizing cannabis is this year’s priority to be the progressive capital of the nation. We won’t be the first, but our program will be the best,” Cuomo added.