On Tuesday, New York lawmakers kicked off public discussion of adult use cannabis legislation.
Members of the Senate Finance Committee and the Assembly Ways and Means Committee heard from a panel that included New York State Cannabis Growers and Processors Association President Allan Gandelman, New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association President Ngiste Abebe, who also serves as director of public policy at Columbia Care, and Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM).
It’s “about weed,” said committee chair Liz Krueger, who is leading, alongside Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the adult use effort in the legislature, as she turned to cannabis following a heated discussion. “Much more relaxing.”
Yet again in New York, while both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers agree that cannabis should be legalized—Cuomo has for the third year in a row introduced legalization by budget, and lawmakers have also put forth their own plan—the parties are not in agreement about how cannabis should be legalized. In years past, lawmakers and Cuomo couldn’t come to a consensus by deadlines, mostly over issues like tax revenue allocation and equity provisions. This year, that might change though, as Cuomo is already signaling a willingness to close that gap. Cuomo announced last week that he revised his budget proposal.
Cuomo has also said for the past several years that, if legalization doesn’t cross the finish line through his budget, it would be a tough sell in New York’s legislative chambers.
“It is a controversial topic. It’s a controversial and a difficult vote. I get it. I believe if we don’t have it done by the budget, we’re not going to get it done,” Cuomo said during a press briefing last week. “And I think it would be a failing if we don’t get it done this year. And I think that would be a mistake. So we’re sending a new bill that reflects the conversations we’ve had. But I’m hopeful that we can come to an agreement and we can get it done. But I believe, because I’ve seen this movie before, if we don’t get it done by April 1, we won’t get it done.”
Tuesday’s hearing showed support for the legislative approach to legalization, for different reasons, and dissent from a consistently opposed voice.
Gandelman said that the Association conducted a tax analysis of the two proposals and found that the governor’s plan “has potential to harm small businesses” because Cuomo’s plan involves higher taxes that could “drive consumers to the illicit market or across state lines” for cheaper cannabis products.
“We need to balance issues involving taxes, licensing, and speed to market. The [Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, or MRTA, put forth by lawmakers] does an excellent job allowing for social consumption, cannabis home grow, micro businesses, home delivery, and funding for social equity advocates. These policies should be, without question, integrated into any final legislation enacted by the state,” Gandelman said, adding that legislatively mandated deadlines should be implemented to prevent potential rollout delays.
Abebe, of the MCIA, said that the MRTA has “critical elements that the association supports, including comprehensive social equity policies and key improvements,” and added that there’s a “sense of urgency” due to legalization in neighboring states, like Massachusetts, and the potential for federal movement on cannabis reform.
New York’s medical cannabis industry, which has boomed in the past handful of years, is largely run by a handful of multistate cannabis operators, or MSOs. Abebe, who works for one of those operators, Columbia Care, said that the auction process in the governor’s plan, which would allow some existing medical cannabis licensees to remain vertically integrated in the adult use market, a structure not allowed for newcomers, will “primarily serve to significantly delay revenue and job growth while also undermining social equity principles among current standards for cannabis legalization policy.
“We think that the medical operators already invested in New York facilities, jobs, and serving New York patients can help support the social equity and economic goals underpinning these legislative efforts,” Abebe said.
Sabet, of SAM, spoke about concerns related to the potential for increased emergency room admissions due to higher-concentration THC products and risks of a possible uptick in impaired driving.
“While we should remove criminal penalties and continue to do that by not penalizing people for use, while we absolutely should expunge records and invest in prevention and treatment, generally the legalization of marijuana is bad policy and should be opposed,” Sabet said.
Krueger, a longtime sponsor of legislation to legalize adult use cannabis, responded that she appreciates Sabet’s “continued advocacy against the bill,” adding that he’s “a voice of one to continually tell me this is all wrong.”
But, Krueger said, cannabis has been in New York “forever,” just in an unregulated way.
“We’re the largest marijuana market in the country, by far. It’s just none of it is legal or regulated with any attempts to make sure that it’s a safe product, or that there’s a limitation on the strength of the THC, or that you’re going after people who are violating your law. So my position is we already have it. Should we be doing it right?” Krueger said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correctly reflect that the hearing was a Joint Legislative Hearing.