Legalization in New York is closer than ever. Over the weekend, New York lawmakers released the final version of a legalization bill, which includes home cultivation, delivery, and specific cannabis tax revenue earmarks for equity efforts.
The sponsors of the bill, Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Senator Liz Krueger, have introduced a legalization bill for the past three years. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has introduced separate cannabis legalization legislation through his budget package, too, though in years past, three-way negotiations have stalled before crossing the finish line by budget or legislative deadlines, mostly over issues related to allocation of cannabis tax revenue and equity provisions.
This year, however, the final sticking point was cannabis impaired driving and how, specifically, to keep New York roads safe. The amended bill now includes language for increases in Drug Recognition Experts, or members of law enforcement who receive more training on how to detect impaired driving. There’s also a requirement for a standalone study to “determine what a level of impairment looks like when a person has THC in their system,” Peoples-Stokes told Cannabis Wire. “That, we don’t know right now,” she said, adding that “it is complicating things for the vehicle and traffic safety laws.”
This year, Peoples-Stokes told Cannabis Wire, three-way negotiations with Cuomo were “different.”
“He knows it cannot happen without reinvesting in the lives of people who suffered. And so I think that the conversation was different because I couldn’t change from that. And I think he understands that I’m not going to change from that position. And so he conceded and I appreciate that,” Peoples-Stokes told Cannabis Wire.
The bill has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee, where it must be approved before heading to the full Senate for discussion and vote. Krueger told Cannabis Wire on Sunday that she “fully” expects the bill to pass when it is voted on this week. Cuomo said in a statement on Sunday, “I look forward to signing this legislation into law.”
“After several years of running a marathon with this bill, the last few weeks have been a sprint. We needed to come to agreement on literally hundreds of points in a bill that is 128 pages long—and we did. No piece of legislation is going to give everyone everything they want, but the bill we’re ending up with is very close to the one that Majority Leader Peoples-Stokes and I have been carrying and perfecting,” Krueger told Cannabis Wire.
Krueger added, “We have had the benefit of learning from the other states that have already gone down this road, and the result is that New York is poised to implement a nation-leading model for what marijuana legalization can look like, one that foregrounds racial justice, while balancing safety with economic growth, encouraging new small businesses, and significantly diminishing the illegal market.”
Both lawmakers have emphasized justice, equity, and community reinvestment in their push for cannabis legalization. This focus was reiterated in Saturday’s announcement, as well as the “goals” of allocating 50% of licenses to equity applicants, which includes struggling farmers and veterans who were disabled in service, and to “prevent domination by large existing players.” The state’s medical cannabis program has awarded only ten licenses, and the industry is run by some of the highest-valued cannabis companies in the country, including Curaleaf, Acreage, and Cresco.
One of the most significant disagreements between key lawmakers and Cuomo was around where cannabis tax revenue would go. In years past, Cuomo wanted to direct it to the state’s general fund while lawmakers wanted earmarks for specific purposes. This year, Cuomo’s budget proposal stepped toward lawmakers by broadly identifying equity purposes where the revenue would go, but lawmakers demanded specificity.
The amended MRTA now direct cannabis tax revenue, after “reasonable costs” related to running the adult use program have been covered, to a “state lottery fund” and two new funds within the “cannabis revenue fund” called the “drug treatment and public education fund” and the “community grants reinvestment fund.”
The community fund will get 40%, which will go toward grants for “qualified community-based nonprofit organizations and approved local government entities for the purpose of reinvesting in communities disproportionately affected by past federal and state drug policies.” These grants will go toward, for example, job placement, nutrition services, and legal services.
The treatment fund will get 20%, which will go toward prevention and education campaigns focused on youth, public health campaigns focused on the general public, and “substance use disorder treatment programs.” And the lottery fund will get forty percent, and the money will go toward “lottery grants to eligible school districts … to increase the total amount of funding available for general support for public schools.”
Peoples-Stokes told Cannabis Wire that while equity efforts will receive specific revenue allocations, it’s “not at the percentage that we wanted, but it certainly is there.” Still, compared to other jurisdictions, Peoples-Stokes said she is happy with where the final language ended up.
“There’s not a state or country who has made the kind of commitment to the people who have suffered from the decades of mass incarceration like New York has proposed to do. Not one. Everybody else passed legalization and they went backwards, trying to add equity. We’re doing this from day one. And so I think that puts us in a position that we should all be very proud of,” Peoples-Stokes told Cannabis Wire.
Also, while Cuomo’s proposal did not allow for home cultivation, and home cultivation is not currently allowed for medical cannabis patients, the deal bill allows for home cultivation of six plants per person (only three of which can be mature) for both medical and adult use. Per household, the limit is twelve (six mature).
Another major item that remained in MRTA, though it was not included in Cuomo’s proposal, is the allowance of “on-site consumption sites,” including both smoking and vaping. Without these, people who live in public housing, for example, would not be able to consume cannabis due to the ongoing federal cannabis prohibition, as Cannabis Wire previously reported.
Finally, a major difference between MRTA and Cuomo’s proposal was around penalties. The deal sets the threshold for “unlawful possession” at more than three ounces, higher than Cuomo’s proposed threshold, and includes clear language on the automatic expungement of records for those whose convictions were for activities that the bill would be making legal.
Other broad details of MRTA: cannabis delivery will be allowed; cannabis sales will be taxed at 9%, while another 4% tax will be split between the county and its localities that allow for cannabis sales (towns, cities, and villages can opt out); there will be an additional potency tax, which is not included in many adult use programs, but which public health experts suggest is helpful to discourage use of higher potency products; the medical cannabis program will be expanded; vertical integration, or the holding of licenses across the supply chain, from cultivation to retail, will not be allowed, except for microbusiness licensees; the exception to this rule, albeit with limitations, is existing medical cannabis businesses, which are already vertically integrated as mandated under the state’s medical cannabis law.
Krueger and Peoples-Stokes have been working toward legalization for nearly a decade, which is part of the reason they expect swift passage.
“It’s been around for eight years. We’ve discussed it between three parties for the third year,” Peoples-Stokes told Cannabis Wire. “We should be able to get this one on the floor and get it passed right away.”