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Will New York legalize marijuana? Bill sponsor says the state is ‘getting really close’

Politicians are increasingly backing recreational policies as neighboring states debate their own legalization bills.

Sen. Liz Krueger said New York state is

Sen. Liz Krueger said New York state is coming "really close" to marijuana legalization during a panel at the Cannabis Law Summit in midtown Manhattan on Thursday. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

Marijuana legalization in New York is getting lit with support from elected officials, and one state senator believes it could become reality by 2019.

Several versions of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, sponsored by state Sen. Liz Krueger, have circulated in the Senate since 2013, but never got any sizable attention, she said at a Cannabis Law Summit in midtown on Thursday. As Massachusetts plans to start sales this fall, and other states debate legalization, fewer lawmakers are looking at her like she is crazy, she said.

“As I knew we would see, the world did not end with legalization state by state,” Krueger said at the panel discussion, “Overview of Adult-Use Legislation in New York and New Jersey,” in Times Square, adding that the momentum has been building toward getting her colleagues on board with the idea. “It’s been not in a rush for five years, and it feels like we are getting really close.”

Legalization, however, has to go beyond a “free the weed” mentality; it has to be about more than just advancing marijuana culture, according to Christopher Alexander, panelist and policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.

The focus of the panel, and of legalization, as iterated by Alexander, should focus on the continued criminalization of low-income communities. Prior drug convictions affect an individual’s chance of future employment, a spot in public housing units and educational opportunities, he said. It is also one of the major reasons why immigrants are deported, how families get torn apart by child welfare services, and why former convicts get trapped in the parole system, he added.

Decriminalization efforts

New York City is taking tentative steps toward addressing the impact of marijuana policies on minority communities.

On Sunday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would order the NYPD to stop making marijuana-related arrests, and issue violators summonses instead. In another step toward “likely” legalization, he declared his intention to create an interagency task force to study the effects of legalizing recreational use of pot. A timetable has not been set for the task force yet, according to a mayoral spokesman.

“With marijuana legalization likely to occur in our state in the near future, it is critical our city plans for the public safety, health and financial consequences involved,” he said in a statement.

On May 15, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. announced that his office will no longer prosecute marijuana possession and smoking cases, with limited exceptions that might pose a threat to public safety beginning in August. His announcement followed a report released by his office, which detailed how individuals from predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods were arrested at a higher rate on marijuana charges than those living in white neighborhoods. Vance added that the new policy would mean a 96 percent decline in marijuana-related arrests, from 5,000 per year to 200.

On the same day, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill announced that the police department has created a 30-day working group to address the racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests.

Such proclamations, however, are not enough, Legal Aid Society attorney Anthony Posada said on Thursday via telephone. While Vance’s announcement is progress in the sense that it lets Gov. Andrew Cuomo know where Manhattan stands on the issue, a statewide legalization is the only way substantive transformation can occur, he said.

“The law still remains on the books. The law carries the weight of probable cause to make these arrests,” Posada said.

By legalizing recreational use of marijuana, according to the provisions of Krueger’s bill, the revenue earned from marijuana-related businesses can be funneled back into the communities that bore the impact of criminalization.

There are other financial benefits to the state as well, such as tax benefits. Legalizing marijuana could yield up to $1.3 billion annually at the state and city levels, according to a report released by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office. Calling those projections elevated, Krueger warned of setting too high of a tax on marijuana businesses, which could incentivize buyers to flock to a cheaper black market. She stressed the importance of setting a drug policy in New York that is a product of what did and didn’t work in other states that legalized recreational marijuana.

“The facts have changed on marijuana,” Cuomo said in Brooklyn on April 12, according to a statement provided by his office. “It’s no longer a question of legal or not legal. It’s legal in Massachusetts, it may be legal in New Jersey, which means, for all intents and purposes, it’s going to be here anyway, right?”

In New York, Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act in July 2014, which legalized medical marijuana for patients who are certified by medical practitioners as having “serious” conditions, including cancer, AIDS, severe chronic pain, severe nausea, and other ailments. In 2017, Cuomo called marijuana a “gateway drug.” In January 2018, he changed his position and ordered a study to obtain facts and determine the impact of legalization in New York, especially in contrast with New Jersey.

The governor for the Garden State, Gov. Philip D. Murphy, ran on a marijuana legalization platform last year. Since his election, he has stressed his commitment to get a legalization bill passed before the end of the year, according to reports. He also signed an executive order to relax regulations on medical marijuana, which New Jersey allowed in 2010.

For recreational marijuana, however, there is no one bill that has garnered widespread support from New Jersey lawmakers, according to Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. There are several legalization bills floating in the state Senate that address some aspects of drug policy, like state Sen. Nicholas Scutari’s, but none that include all the provisions that Sinha believes advocates want to see in a piece of legislation. These include automatic expungence of the records of drug offenders, reinvestment of marijuana-related taxes back into the community, allowance for home growers to grow and consume their weed products, and a fair industry that removes arbitrary caps and restrictions on those trying to obtain marijuana licenses, he said.

“There may be a bit of an arms race to figure out who gets the first bite at the marijuana apple, so to speak, and the moment right now is really palpable in New Jersey,” Sinha added.

De Blasio ‘just not there’

Krueger, too, plans to ride what she called the “blue wave” in the November midterm elections, when she expects a “Democratic takeover of the New York state Legislature. With a democratic governor, she believes her legalization bill will come to a vote in 2019.

In New York City, however, de Blasio has expressed apprehension at the prospect, saying he is “just not there” on marijuana legalization in a news conference on April 17. Worrying that legalization of recreational marijuana could become a corporate reality, de Blasio had said, “And then, as we’ve seen with tobacco, there’d be a consistent effort to try and hook young people, and potentially spread something much more widely than it is even now. That worries me.”

On Friday at another unrelated news conference, he said that his approach toward legalization has undergone a “natural evolution.

“Once upon a time, you know, the coin of the realm was, maximize arrests, maximize stops, all that. We’ve obviously changed those policies,” he said, crediting a decline in arrests to his neighborhood policing program. “I bluntly had hoped we would get more done. We haven’t gotten enough done. We have to do something more.”

While first lady Chirlane McCray has come out in support of regulated recreational use of marijuana, de Blasio has stated that he would like to further study states that have undergone legalization.

A study by the American College of Pediatricians shows that marijuana is addicting and can have adverse effects on the adolescent brain. Legalization could lead to increased consumption amongst youth and a decreased perception of harm, according to another study conducted by Thomas Petti, professor at the Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine at Rutgers University. According to his findings, educational resources relating to the dangers of marijuana consumption must accompany any legalization efforts.

Krueger acknowledged the potential for harm with legalization, including the effect on youth and the danger of driving while intoxicated during the panel. She addressed the former by delineating a series of education programs included in her bill that would highlight the dangers of pot smoking, so as to prevent young people under the age of 21 from indulging in marijuana consumption. As for the latter, she dismissed the idea saying that not enough people drive in New York City for it to be a real concern.

Other politicians have also come out in support of legalization, including Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, Public Advocate Letitia James, democratic candidate for governor Cynthia Nixon, and others.

Krueger’s bill, if passed, would mostly work like tobacco and alcohol restrictions in the city. Indoor smoking wouldn’t be permitted, except for residential buildings that allow it, she said. She has proposed on-site consumption sites that would work like social clubs, she added. In order to better accommodate individual community concerns, the bill has a provision that will allow municipalities to ban businesses dealing with recreational marijuana if the community calls for it, much like “dry” towns.

“We know from science that cannabis is less dangerous to your health than alcohol. And we’re not running around ruining people’s lives and locking them up for alcohol,” Krueger said. “So I just don’t know why we do it for cannabis.”

With Matthew Chayes, Alison Fox and Ivan Pereira

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