Today, New York became the 16th state (along with Washington, D.C.) to legalize cannabis for adult use. On Tuesday, lawmakers in both chambers approved a legalization bill and sent it to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who signed it on Wednesday morning.
“This is a historic day,” Cuomo tweeted when announcing his signature.
The Senate passed the bill first, voting 40-23. The Assembly then passed it, too, voting 100-49.
“It has been a long road to get here, but it will be worth the wait,” Senator Liz Krueger said just before she cast her vote in favor of the legislation she co-sponsored, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA). “The bill we have held out for in this state will create a nation leading model for legalization. New York’s program will not just talk the talk on racial justice, it will walk the walk, ending racially disparate enforcement that was endemic to prohibition, automatically expunging the records of those who were caught up in the so-called war on drugs.”
The bill, which includes sweeping criminal justice and equity provisions, allows for home cultivation, consumption spaces, and delivery. It also automatically expunges certain past cannabis convictions.
For three years in a row, Cuomo introduced a legalization proposal through the budget while Senator Krueger and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes introduced standalone legislation. In the past, three-way negotiations between lawmakers and Cuomo stalled before deadlines over issues related to cannabis tax revenue and earmarks for equity efforts. This year, negotiations also hinged on concerns over driving while ability impaired by cannabis, a subject that came up repeatedly on Tuesday.
In the absence of a national standard for cannabis impaired driving, law and policymakers have leaned on drug recognition experts (DREs), which are members of law enforcement who receive additional training to detect impaired drivers. Krueger and Peoples-Stokes’ amended Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) allocates funding for DRE training and, according to a Senate summary of the bill, “expands traffic safety protections, including the development of roadside testing technology and is subject to appropriations.”
Most of the lawmakers who took time on Tuesday to ask questions in the Assembly and the Senate expressed opposition to the bill. In addition to impaired driving, the questions primarily focused on concerns around youth use, criminal penalties, and workplace safety. Both Krueger and Peoples-Stokes responded in detail, often pointing to existing research or language in the bill that offered clarity or counterpoints to those posing the questions.
The debate in both chambers could be summed up in an exchange between Assembly member Ed Ra and Majority Leader Peoples-Stokes, during which Ra asked whether Peoples-Stokes believes the benefits of legalization outweigh the costs.
“Absolutely,” said Peoples-Stokes.
Lawmakers who spoke in favor of the legislation focused on how legalization would regulate a product that is currently widely used in the state without age and quality controls, redirect sales revenue from the underground market to the state instead, and begin to undo the harm to individuals and communities caused by cannabis prohibition and the broader drug war.
“This will end 90 years of prohibition,” Peoples-Stokes said, in response to one lawmaker’s question about the benefits of legalization.
“The reason why it was prohibited is not because it was hurting anybody. It was prohibited because the people who decided to do it didn’t like the fact that people were enjoying jazz music. So they said, ‘well, we’re going to make this illegal. Perhaps those people will stop playing jazz music.’ Well, guess what? They didn’t stop playing jazz music. And in the process, we have literally destroyed the lives of multiple thousands of people,” Peoples-Stokes continued. “That’s the good thing about this legislation. We’re going to try to not just eliminate the prohibition, but we’re going to turn around the lives of some of those people and try to help them be able to take care of themselves, their families, and their communities.”
Now that Cuomo has signed the MRTA into law, a new Cannabis Control Board and an Office of Cannabis Management, housed under the State Liquor Authority, will oversee the state’s adult use program, as well as the existing medical use and cannabinoid hemp programs. The Board will craft the regulations that the Office will implement. A Cannabis Advisory Board will also be formed, and it will make policy recommendations to regulators and will approve Community Reinvestment Fund grants, which will come out of cannabis tax revenue.
While it isn’t required in the bill, one stated goal is to award half of all adult use licenses to social equity applicants, defined, for example, as “minority-owned businesses,” “distressed farmers,” or “service-disabled veterans.” Priority will be given to low-income applicants, those who have been personally impacted by cannabis prohibition, and those with detailed plans to benefit communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war.
Cannabis tax revenue remaining after program costs are covered will primarily go toward three funds: a “state lottery fund,” which will get 40%; a “drug treatment and public education fund,” which will get 20%; and a “community grants reinvestment fund,” which will get 40%.
The community fund will award grants to “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.” The treatment fund will support prevention, education, and public health campaigns as well as treatment. And the lottery fund will send money to public schools.
Individuals will be allowed to grow six plants at home, and the household limit is twelve. In both cases, only half of the plants are allowed to be mature. A person could lawfully possess up to three ounces of flower or 24 grams of concentrates, and they could purchase cannabis at a shop or have it delivered to their home. And “on-site consumption sites” will be allowed, which means that those who cannot consume at home, for example, people who live in public housing, will have a place to smoke or vape cannabis.
The tax on cannabis sales will be set at 13%: 9% at the state level and an additional 4% at the local level (towns, cities, and villages can opt out of sales). There will be a tax paid at the distributor level depending on the potency of a product (per milligram of THC): 5 cents for flower, 8 cents for concentrates, and 3 cents for edibles. Such a tax could discourage use of higher potency, and therefore more expensive, products.
The adult use program for cannabis would be modeled after the state’s rules for alcohol, which means that one entity cannot produce, wholesale, and retail cannabis. The exceptions to this will be microbusiness licensees and, with limitations, the state’s existing medical cannabis businesses, which are required under the state’s medical cannabis law to control medical cannabis from seed to sale.
The bill will also allow smokable medical cannabis to be sold at medical cannabis shops and smokable hemp to be sold at adult use shops. Currently, only non-smokable forms of these products are legal.
Editor’s note: this story, originally published on March 30 with the headline, New York Lawmakers Pass Cannabis Legalization Bill After Years of Negotiations, has been updated to reflect Gov. Cuomo’s signature.