New York Is Down to the Wire Again on Recreational Cannabis Legalization

June 18, 2019

By Chloe Aiello

Facing a Wednesday deadline, legislative supporters of legalized marijuana are making a last-minute effort to push through a bill that would make recreational marijuana legal in New York state.

With hours to spare, legislators and advocates were optimistic Tuesday evening that the revised "Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act” can overcome the last remnants of opposition in the New York Senate and make New York the 12th U.S. state to legalize recreational cannabis.

But if this push fails, it will be the second time this year the Empire State ー and Gov. Andrew Cuomo ー fell short of legalizing recreational cannabis.

A spokesperson for Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes said “she’s hopeful, she’s confident that it can pass." Later in the day, she tweeted that legislators might have to "stay until Friday" to work out a compromise.

There have been several points of contention in the bill, like how to handle cannabis tax revenue, whether to permit homegrow, and how localities can go about opting out of recreational legalization.

Lawmakers from Nassau and Suffolk counties in Long Island have already expressed their intentions to forego recreational cannabis sales, the New York Post reported.

Tax revenue hits close to home for many lawmakers, like Peoples-Stokes, and advocates who have been fighting to ensure much of the tax revenue from the cannabis industry goes toward re-investment in disadvantaged communities, especially those disproportionately impacted by cannabis criminalization. But Gov. Cuomo’s office has been fighting for looser language in the bill that could hand over more control of that tax revenue to the executive branch, The New York Times reported.

Cuomo pushed back on that assessment in a radio interview with Susan Arbetter on Monday.

“I support the concept that the communities that have paid the highest price socially and demographically and economically should now share in the revenue from the bill,” he said. “What is the revenue, when is the revenue, how does that happen? That’s a question.”

In its current form, however, the bill checks a lot of boxes for advocates, like Troy Smit, deputy director of the Empire State chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML). It includes expungement provisions for people with cannabis-related convictions, allows people to cultivate small amounts of plants at home, prioritizes licenses for minority entrepreneurs and those disproportionately impacted by cannabis criminalization, and allocates a fixed percentage of tax revenue to community re-investment.

“I would consider this not only a win for New York, but a win for all the states that haven’t legalized yet and will be looking to us as an example,” Smit said.

But the bill probably will change before final voting takes place. A spokesperson for N.Y. Senator Liz Krueger, the bill’s sponsor, said a third version of the bill is scheduled to come out. That version may do away with some of the more divisive provisions included on the previous bill, but it is likely to pass, Smit said.

“If they come out with [another version], it’s almost guaranteed that it’s going to pass. I’d say it’s like an 80 percent chance because of just how committed the Gov. is in the media,” Smit said. “If he doesn’t bring it to a vote at that point and they all come to a compromise, then he’s seen as failing.”