New York lawmakers vote to legalize recreational marijuana; $350 million in annual tax revenue expected

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Oregon decriminalizes illicit drugs, four other states legalize weed

Possessing small amounts of illicit drugs will no longer mean jail time in Oregon, and four other states legalized recreational marijuana on Election Day.

USA TODAY

ALBANY — State lawmakers voted Tuesday to make New York the 15th state to legalize recreational marijuana, marking a key step to ending years of failed attempts to allow adults to purchase, grow and use cannabis-based drugs.

The legislation passed by a margin of 43 to 20 in the Senate and 100 to 49 in the Assembly, with Democrats controlling both chambers.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign the measure that creates a regulatory system to oversee the cannabis industry, spanning from massive grow operations to corner cafes allowing outdoor marijuana smoking and vaping.

The state anticipates legal marijuana sales for those age 21 and older will begin a year from now, as it embarks on the complex task of issuing cannabis business licenses while preparing to enforce a lengthy list of new marijuana statutes.

Once fully operational, the cannabis industry is expected to generate more than $350 million in tax revenues per year for the state of New York, with 40% going to a social equity fund, 40% for schools and 20% for drug treatment and education.

New York Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, who championed the legislation, touted it as key to removing marijuana from the illicit marketplace run by dangerous drug cartels to one tightly regulated by state authorities.    

“The fact is to have a legalized system . . . ensures that the drug is safe from seed to sale,” she said, adding the goal is also to end decades of racially biased enforcement of marijuana prohibition.

“We are wasting generations of lives,” Krueger said, referring to marijuana-related arrests derailing countless lives in communities of color.

New York Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, expanded upon her comments on the Senate floor, saying marijuana “prohibition and criminalization are racist.”  

Opponents of the legalization plan, however, raised concerns about youths using marijuana, negative health effects from using high-potency cannabis drugs, as well as the lack of details related to plans for enforcing drugged driving laws.

The Senate bill passed mainly along party lines. State government is controlled by Democrats.

“I firmly believe we are setting up communities to fail,” said New York Sen. Fred Akshar, R-Binghamton, Broome County.

More: What to know about NY’s plan to legalize recreational marijuana

What lawmakers say about NY recreational marijuana

Legislative debate Tuesday over legalizing recreational marijuana touched on everything from the lack of a marijuana breathalyzer to enforce drugged driving laws to rules for prohibiting cannabis edibles that mimic candy.

The legislation calls for creating a new Office of Cannabis Management to implement regulations and oversee the entire industry, including the recreational marijuana, medical marijuana and hemp sides.

Krueger noted the cannabis office will be tasked with finalizing some details for keeping marijuana away from children, such as deciding which types of edibles to ban besides gummies shaped like bears, fish and other animals.

“We will have an agency that will be writing regulations and can address those kinds of questions,” she said.

Meanwhile, state health officials and experts will study how to improve drugged driving enforcement, including the potential use of saliva-based marijuana tests, according to the legislation.

Currently, law enforcement in part relies on officers specially trained in conducting field sobriety tests for marijuana impairment, called drug recognition experts, as well as blood tests.

The new cannabis office will be overseen by a board appointed by the governor and legislative leaders. The office will also have an executive director appointed by the governor.

New York Sen. Mario Mattera, R-Long Island, expressed concerns New York’s plan for legalizing marijuana would increase workplace injuries and liability in construction, while fueling use of more dangerous drugs.

“My family members have gone through drug addiction. Very sad what I’ve been going through, and it started with marijuana,” he said, referring to cannabis as a gateway drug.

Krueger disputed the long-standing gateway theory for marijuana use and compared its risks to other legal substances.

 “We tax and regulate tobacco and alcohol. We don’t give people criminal records,” she said, adding that is the reasoning for legalizing marijuana for adults.

New York Sen. Peter Harckham, D-South Salem, Westchester County, and other Democratic lawmakers expanded on Krueger’s comments by emphasizing New York is falling behind other states in reducing illicit marijuana use and addressing social injustices.

“We are not about to entice new users. This about taking an existing market that is illegal, making it legal and using the tax revenue for a public good,” Harckham said.

More: New York to legalize recreational marijuana; vote expected within days

What to know about NY recreational marijuana plans

Pot will be legal for those over the age of 21 to possess, display, purchase, obtain or transport up to three ounces of cannabis and up to 24 grams of concentrated cannabis.

People will be buying marijuana from storefront dispensaries, as well as locations permitted for on-site marijuana use, such as cigar bars, catering halls and outdoor dining areas, with strict rules on where smoking and vaping is allowed. Limited special event permits will also be issued for indoor marijuana use.

Local municipalities will be able to opt-out by banning dispensaries and on-site marijuana use sites.

Sales of marijuana will be taxed at a rate of 14%. Of that, 9% goes to the state, while 4% goes to the city, town or village where the sale is made and 1% goes to the county.

Lobbying: Meet one of NY, NJ’s biggest marijuana supporters: Scotts Miracle-Gro

There will also be a tax imposed based on THC content: 0.5 cents per milligram for flower, 0.8 cents per milligram for concentrated cannabis, and 3 cents per milligram for edibles.

The law will also allows every New Yorker over the age of 21 to grow up to three mature and three immature cannabis plants at a time, with a maximum of 12 plants per household.

But recreational use growing can’t begin until 18 months after the first legal sales at dispensaries or consumption sites. Certified patients in the state’s medical marijuana program, however, can begin growing six months after the law takes effect. 

Penalties for illegal marijuana possession would range from a simple violation on the low end to a Class D felony for possessing more than 10 pounds of flower or four pounds of concentrated product.

Penalties for illegal sale would remain for anyone who sells marijuana or cannabis products without a license.

The legalization vote comes despite opposition from the Parent Teacher Association and various law enforcement organizations.

It was also opposed by the Medical Society of the State of New York, which represents doctors and raised concerns about the need for additional research into legalized marijuana’s negative effects on physical and mental health.

New York’s two prior attempts to legalize recreational marijuana failed amid debates over how to spend tax revenues to benefit communities of color harmed by enforcement of marijuana prohibition.

In 2019, New York approved a law that decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana after the bid to legalize recreational marijuana fell apart.

Kevin Sabet, president of anti-marijuana group Smart Approaches to Marijuana and its New York affiliate, SAM New York, slammed New York’s plan for marijuana.

Sabet noted the state is allowing people to possess larger amounts of the drug than many other states and passing legislation without including specifics for addressing regarding road safety and public health.

“Even if you believe in the right of adults to smoke a joint, this is a very bad bill,” he said in a statement.

Hemp: New state hemp regulations could make Hudson Valley NY’s headquarters for CBD production

Jon Campbell is a New York state government reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JCAMPBELL1@Gannett.com or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.

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