New York Legislature Legalizes Marijuana

New York Legislature Legalizes Marijuana

After years of negotiations, New York lawmakers have finally reached an agreement to expand the state’s medical marijuana program and incorporate the sale of cannabis for recreational use. Legislators hope to have a budget in place by April 1st, 2021.

The “Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act” NY S854 (21R) / NY A1248 (21R) was approved by both the state Assembly and Senate, and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo the next day. 

The passing of this historical bill was a top priority for the Democrats who recently attained a veto-proof majority in the state Legislature. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is optimistic about the pending legalization and believes the measure could yield approximately $350 million in revenue for the state of New York.

Senator Liz Krueger, Senate sponsor of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) said: 

“My goal in carrying this legislation has always been to end the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana prohibition that has taken such a toll on communities of color across our state, and to use the economic windfall of legalization to help heal and repair those same communities.”

What’s the deal?

Once the system is firmly in place, New York residents will no longer need a medical marijuana card to buy cannabis, although the price is typically much less if residents have one. The new legislation allows adults 21 years and older to purchase and possess up to three ounces of marijuana, or 24 grams of marijuana concentrates. Individuals are now legally able to store up to five pounds of cannabis at home. 

The legislation also allows for the personal cultivation of up to three mature, and three immature marijuana plants. The measure also legalized home delivery of cannabis and cannabis products. 

Local governments in towns and cities would have the right to opt out of adult-cannabis retail sales at their own discretion by passing a local law. However, those municipalities will have to comply with the legalization measures.

The state of New York will impose a 9% tax on sales, as well as a 4% tax split between local governments and the country. THC levels will be taken into consideration and taxed accordingly, ranging from 0.5 cents per milligram for dried flower and up to 3 cents per milligram for edible marijuana products.

When will marijuana be legal in New York?

Parts of the new laws take effect immediately. However, until the state sets up a system for regulation and distribution, recreational marijuana sales are on hold.

Crystal People-Stokes, the Assembly Majority Leader, estimates that an 18-month to two-year period is required to iron out the finer details for a recreational marijuana industry in New York state. She believes the freshly minted legislation “provides long-awaited marijuana justice for New Yorkers, and makes significant steps and investments to begin to address the generational devastation caused by marijuana prohibition and mass incarceration.”

Cannabis is sweeping the USA

New York is the latest of a swarm of states that have been adding, upgrading their medical marijuana programs. And more are sure to follow their lead. So far, half of all states that started with medical marijuana programs have since legalized recreational use programs. 

Missouri medical marijuana cardholders purchased more than $2 million in one week in March. Legislators there are looking to beef up the program. The Ohio medical marijuana program is looking at close to $400 million in sales per year sold at open OH dispensaries. And lawmakers recently expanded the Texas medical marijuana program to include new qualifying conditions. All three states plus many others are now debating the merits of legalizing marijuana for adult recreational markets. 

The legalization of hemp and CBD has been another catalyst for changing public attitudes toward cannabis. Most states have legalized hemp-based CBD products. And states that formerly allowed only low-THC CBD oil for medical use (such as Texas) are looking at relaxing rules to include products with higher levels of THC in their programs.

Social justice efforts

Social justice has been a profound catalyst for legalization in many states where marijuana laws have disproportionately affected minorities. In some metropolitan areas, minority arrests are as much as 400 percent higher than caucasians. 

The New York bill effectively eliminates prosecution and arrest for possession of fewer than three ounces of marijuana. The records of individuals charged with marijuana offenses would be expunged, as they would no longer be criminalized.

Advocates of the legislation are optimistic, and believe the new industry could dismantle the racial inequities created by the “war on drugs.” The same proponents also maintain that a legitimate cannabis industry would create thousands of jobs in under-funded communities disproportionately affected by the prohibition. The bill will also provide an economic boost to women, disabled veterans, and small farmers.

In the past, multiple efforts to legalize adult-use marijuana have been stymied by disagreements over logistics surrounding the distribution of taxes. Other obstacles arose in the form of reluctant suburban Democrats, school and community advocates, and law enforcement. Those opposing factions have many concerns regarding the impact of legalization on vulnerable youth, as well as the already-strained health care system during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The language of the bill is succinct and effectively highlights the inequality and irrationality of the draconian prohibition when it states: 

“Existing laws have been ineffective in reducing or curbing marihuana use and have instead resulted in devastating collateral consequences including mass incarceration and other complex generational trauma, that inhibit an otherwise law-abiding citizen’s ability to access housing, employment opportunities, and other vital services. Existing laws have also created an illicit market which represents a threat to public health and reduces the ability of the legislature to deter the access of marihuana by minors. Existing marijuana laws have disproportionately impacted African-American and Latinx communities.”

Drug Policy Alliance Director, Melissa Moore, said the bill “really puts a nail in the coffin of the drug war that’s been so devastating to communities across New York, and puts in place comprehensive policies that are really grounded in community reinvestment.”