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Can New York’s updated legalization bill finally make it over the finish line?

Published on February 4, 2020 · Last updated July 28, 2020
A clip art photo of the Statue of Liberty for a story about social equity in cannabis legalization.

After a drawn-out and unsuccessful battle to legalize adult-use cannabis in New York last year, lawmakers are ready to try again. Although a significant majority of New Yorkers are in favor of legalization—58%, according to a recent poll—success remains far from certain.

This January, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo presented his updated version of the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act (CRTA) as a component of the proposed state budget. The bill offers some promising upgrades on his previous proposal, yet a continuing lack of specifics on how to fund social equity measures—a huge sticking point last year—could potentially doom the bill once again.

If CRTA fails to pass as part of the state budget, which will be finalized by April 1, lawmakers can additionally try to pass it as a standalone bill before the legislative session ends on June 2.

“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,” Cuomo said.

New York’s neighbors are pulling ahead

In the past year, New York’s neighbors have taken significant steps towards creating adult-use markets of their own. New Jersey is putting a legalization bill before voters this November; a recent poll showed 62% of residents in favor. Legislators in both Pennsylvania and Connecticut are pushing adult-use bills forward.

In Massachusetts, stores generated $420 million in sales (no joke) last year; in some places, half of the customers come from New York.

New York currently has its highest budget gap—six billion dollars—in nearly a decade, creating an additional incentive to legalize. Cuomo has projected that legal cannabis could generate $20 million in the next fiscal year, $63 million the following year and $188 million by FY 2025.

Although details are sparse, Cuomo has additionally suggested that he hopes to work with neighboring states to ensure that tax rates remain similar throughout the region, in order to “discourage cross-border buying that would see states compete for revenue,” as he said in a statement.

The bill would allow for on-site consumption, a huge aid for residents who live in public housing.

Office of Cannabis Management would control equity funds

Like last year, the proposed CRTA would also create an Office of Cannabis Management. This time around, however, Cuomo has already appointed Norman Birenbaum, whom he poached from a similar role in Rhode Island, to run the program.

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While Birenbaum is projecting optimism—“Fortunately, there aren’t a lot of sticking points,” he told Gothamist last week—activists and lawmakers alike are wary that putting the allocation of social equity funds in the hands of the OCM will be ineffective.

'We feel extremely strongly that the only way we can support a legalization bill is if revenues are committed to specific programs.'

In its current form, the bill offers a rough outline of social equity measures, like low to 0% interest business loans, incubator loans, and reduced or deferred application fees for individuals from communities affected by the war on drugs.

But State Senator Liz Krueger, who previously introduced a more progressive cannabis legislation bill known as MRTA, argued that’s not enough. A lack of specifics around social equity would be a “dealbreaker” for her and MRTA’s co-sponsor, Assembly Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes,” she told Capitol Pressroom last week. “We feel extremely strongly that the only way we can support a legalization bill is if revenues are committed to specific programs.”

Jervonne Singletary, the Assistant Vice President of the New York City Economic Development Corporation and an active member of the Mayor’s Task Force on Cannabis Legalization, explained that the current proposal is likely to change.

“This is an iterative process,” she told Leafly. “We’ve seen a first draft from the governor. As negotiations continue, different sections of the bill will be adjusted depending on feedback from multiple stakeholders.”

Homegrow and roadside testing raise additional concerns

The new CRTA bill also calls for an implementation of roadside testing, which, some fear, will perpetuate New York’s history of racially-biased over-policing.

'There has to be a middle ground.'

“One of the concerns is that it would allow a law enforcement officer to search a car on the basis of smelling cannabis odor,” said Ryan Lepore, the Deputy Director of NYC NORML. “That can trample on people’s rights. [It’s] cementing what we’re trying to get away from.”

“There has to be a middle ground,” he added. “We need to work together to figure out what that actually is.”

Lepore expressed similar concern over the homegrow measure, which permits medical patients to possess up to four plants; none for non-patients. “Checking on plant count, inspectors verifying you’re within the law, it allows law enforcement into your house because you opted in … Being a medical marijuana patient usually gives you more rights, but in this case you have less rights because someone can come into your household.”

Jervonne Singletary, a member of the Mayor’s Task Force, cites home grow as an element of the bill that is likely to change: “The bill does a good job of beginning to address homegrow,” she said. “I think we’ll come to a different place with homegrow,” she said.

More changes to come

In the ensuing weeks, lawmakers will hear from constituents and advocates, and continue to modify the bill in the leadup to the budget deadline.

Lepore, of NYC NORML, has already seen an encouraging shift in the mood in Albany. “Last year legislators were waking up to the facts,” he said. “[Now], legislators are a lot more informed on the topic than last year.”

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Max Savage Levenson
Max Savage Levenson
Max Savage Levenson likely has the lowest cannabis tolerance of any writer on the cannabis beat. He also writes about music for Pitchfork, Bandcamp and other bespectacled folk. He co-hosts The Hash podcast. His dream interview is Tyler the Creator.
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