April 11, 2021

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New York ‘really close’ to legalizing marijuana for adult use as top lawmakers reach consensus

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ALBANY, N.Y. – New York is on the brink of becoming the 15th state to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

State lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo were closing in on a bill Wednesday to authorize and regulate the sale and use of marijuana in New York, allowing anyone over the age of 21 to legally purchase cannabis products from dispensaries licensed by the state or to grow a small number of plants in their own homes.

By Wednesday afternoon, rank-and-file lawmakers were reviewing the final details of an agreement struck by legislative leaders earlier in the day. The deal could lead to a vote as soon as early next week, though a bill had not yet been introduced.

For weeks, Cuomo and top lawmakers said they had been nearing agreement on marijuana, which has been legalized in 14 states, two territories and Washington D.C.

But in the state’s capital, seemingly minor disagreements can quickly devolve into major dustups, leaving policymakers hesitant to say a final agreement has been reached even as rank-and-file lawmakers were briefed Tuesday night and Wednesday morning on the parameters of a potential deal.

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Late Wednesday morning, Cuomo said an agreement was within reach.

“We’re close, but we’ve been close three times before,” Cuomo said Wednesday afternoon, referencing the previous three years of negotiations.

“If we were playing horseshoes, we’d be in good shape. But we’re not playing horseshoes. You either get it done, you get a bill, or you don’t.”

What the emerging marijuana agreement would do

The emerging agreement would create the state Office of Cannabis Management and the Cannabis Control Board to oversee the entire cannabis industry, including recreational marijuana, medical marijuana and the emerging hemp and CBD fields.

Among other provisions, the deal under negotiation would:

  • Create a number of new state licenses for cannabis, including separate licenses for cannabis farmers, distributors, product makers, dispensaries, and retail locations where people would be able to consume cannabis products on site.
  • Cities, towns and villages would be given until the end of the year to opt out of having dispensaries or consumption sites within their borders.
  • Anyone over the age of 21 would be allowed to grow up to three mature and three immature cannabis plants at their home, up to a maximum of 12 total plants per household. Card-carrying medical marijuana users would be able to begin growing within six months of the bill taking effect; Recreational users would have to wait until 18 months after the first dispensary opens.
  • Cannabis would be taxed both at the distributor and retail level, with distributors paying a per-milligram tax on flowers, concentrate and edibles, while retail sales would have a state tax of 9% and a local tax of 4%. 
  • 40% of the state revenue would be set aside for a new fund, which would be flagged for supporting social and economic equity programs. Another 40% would go into the state education fund, while the remaining 20% would go toward drug education programs.

How to split up the marijuana revenue had been a sticking point in recent years, with many Democratic lawmakers pushing to reserve a large portion for grant programs meant to benefit Black and brown communities that had been disproportionately affected by tough drug laws over the years.

Over the past two weeks, the major remaining hurdle had been centered on the issue of impaired driving and how police can or cannot determine whether someone is under the influence of marijuana.

Specifically, Cuomo and the two houses of the Legislature struggled to reach an agreement on the use of saliva testing to determine whether someone is influenced by marijuana while driving.

Some lawmakers have proposed setting aside state money to study the issue further, raising concern that current saliva testing is unproven. It wasn’t immediately clear Wednesday how the issue had been resolved.

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Marijuana deal had been close for weeks

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat, said lawmakers were “really, really, really close” on a marijuana agreement. Previously, she said there was an “impasse” in negotiations on impaired driving, but things were progressing.

“We have gotten past the impasse on impaired driving and we are looking to get language that I think will be satisfactory in the next day or so,” she told reporters.

On Wednesday morning, Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat who has led her chamber’s negotiations on the issue, told The Buffalo News that negotiations were continuing.

“It’s down to the word ‘may’ or ‘shall’ and commas or periods,” she said of the negotiations.

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The emerging agreement comes as the state Capitol continues to deal with multiple scandals centered on Cuomo, including at least a half dozen women who have accused him of sexual harassment, misconduct or otherwise inappropriate conduct.

On Wednesday, Cuomo said critics of marijuana legalization have to realize nearby states are already offering legal sales, forcing New York to act or to lose out on revenue.

“We have passed the point of legalized cannabis,” he said. “It’s in New Jersey. It’s in Massachusetts. To say we’re going to stop it is not an option. It’s already here.”

Follow Jon Campbell on Twitter: @JonCampbellGAN.

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