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Marijuana legalization and NY: Recreational push in 2019 legislative session

Lawmakers are hoping a revised legalization bill can win support before the end of the legislative session on June 19.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, seen here on May 16,

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, seen here on May 16, recently suggested he's not certain a bill to legalize marijuana will be passed by state lawmakers before the end of the legislative session. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Will New York become the 12th state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana? Lawmakers are hoping recent changes to a bill will attract Gov. Andrew Cuomo's support.

For more than a year, city and state officials have taken steps toward possible legalization, with public listening sessions and government reports leading to legislative efforts to produce a bill. But after the legislation was dropped from the budget in March, much of the enthusiasm from lawmakers in Albany has waned.

Legislators hope a bill amendment will put the bill back on track before the end of the legislative session on June 19.

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What's the latest

State legislators on May 24 filed an amendment to a bill proposed four months ago by Sen. Liz Krueger and Rep. Crystal Peoples-Stokes that would legalize recreational use of marijuana and set aside specific amounts of tax revenue from regulating the drug to benefit communities disproportionately targeted by drug enforcement. 

The amendment would increase the proposed taxes on marijuana; lower the amount of pot an individual can posses; expunge low-level marijuana convictions; and allow the governor to appoint someone to oversee an Office of Cannabis Management, The Buffalo News reported. Additionally, the revised bill would extend priority for licenses to the family members of people who were convicted of a marijuana-related crime. 

The renewed legislative push comes after the governor suggested that he wasn't sure whether legalization could happen before the end of the legislative session. 

"When the Legislature starts to say, ‘We need the governor to get us votes,’ that’s legislative code for ‘We don’t have the votes,' " Cuomo told reporters during a news conference on May 10 at the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Krueger, who has said passing the legislation was "always going to be a heavy lift," reiterated the need for Cuomo's support. 

“I still don’t have enough votes in the Senate, unless the Assembly passes it first and the governor comes out in full-throated support for this bill … then I feel like I could probably put it across the finish line,’’ she said.

Public support

The majority of voters in New York support legalizing marijuana 55-40 percent, according to a Siena Research Institute poll released on June 10. The issue is largely split along party lines, with 61 percent of Democrats in favor and 55 percent of Republicans against legalization, the poll found.

In March, an NBC 4 New York/Marist poll produced similar results, with 57 percent of respondents in support of marijuana legalization and 38 percent opposing it.

A poll released by Quinnipiac University in January showed that not only do a majority of New Yorkers back legalizing marijuana, they also support erasing past criminal convictions for possession.

“There are some concerns being expressed, for example, about potential increase in car accidents, but overall New Yorkers say they would be in favor of legalizing marijuana and also be OK with it sold in their communities," Quinnipiac poll analyst Mary Snow said.

State efforts to legalize marijuana 

Some lawmakers refused to support Cuomo's budget proposal, which would have set the legal age to consume marijuana at 21, unless it included more details on how tax revenue from the cannabis industry would benefit communities disproportionately affected by the current laws.

Though Cuomo's plan called for a "social and economic equity plan," it did not have specific details.

"They thought we were going to trust that, at the end of the day, these communities would be invested in. But that’s not something I want to trust," Peoples-Stokes told The New York Times in March. "If it’s not required in the statute, then it won’t happen."

Another element that had local leaders, including the state Association of Counties, asking questions was Cuomo’s plan to allow major cities and counties the ability to opt out of the law. 

Cuomo's decision to support marijuana legalization followed a series of public hearings in 2018 that endorsed decriminalization efforts after the state Department of Health issued a report advocating a change in law.

The six-month Health Department study, commissioned by Cuomo, was released in July and determined that the benefits of legal marijuana outweigh the risks. The department also determined that legalizing the drug for New Yorkers older than 21 would not significantly raise smoking rates and could help reduce racial disparities in police enforcement.

Medical marijuana remains legal in New York State for patients who are certified by medical practitioners as having serious conditions, under the Compassionate Care Act. The conditions include cancer, AIDS and severe chronic pain, among other ailments.

Where does Mayor Bill de Blasio stand?

De Blasio, who had not previously endorsed full recreational legalization, reversed course with the release in December of a 71-page report from the Mayor's Task Force on Cannabis Legalization.

"We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get a historic issue right for future New Yorkers," de Blasio said in a letter attached to the report. "Legal cannabis is coming to New York State."

The task force recommends the taxation of marijuana sales in New York City, restriction of purchase and possession to those 21 and older and expunging of marijuana-related convictions.

The mayor had previously backed efforts to reduce the effects of marijuana enforcement, and as of Sept. 1, most New Yorkers found smoking in public faced criminal summonses, rather than undergoing an arrest.

"Nobody’s destiny should hinge on a minor nonviolent offense," de Blasio said in June when announcing the policy change. "Neighborhood policing has helped to bring officers and community together, but we still have more work to do to right the wrongs in the criminal justice system. This new policy will help reduce unnecessary arrests, while making our city fairer and safer."

Decriminalization efforts in the city

The City Council passed a bill on April 9 that prohibits employers from requiring a prospective worker to submit testing for the presence of the active ingredient in marijuana, known as tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. Lawmakers also approved legislation that bans the city from requiring marijuana testing for people who are on probation.

The City Council also has passed resolutions that call for all misdemeanor marijuana convictions to be expunged and for the state Legislature to pass legislation that fully legalizes, regulates and taxes the drug.

The district attorneys of Manhattan and Brooklyn also have pursued decriminalization efforts, which have resulted in drastic drops in convictions for marijuana possession.

As of Aug. 1, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. stopped prosecuting low-level marijuana possession and smoking cases, with two exceptions: Those who possess 10 bags or more of marijuana for sale, and those who demonstrate a public threat. 

In addition, close to 3,000 outstanding misdemeanor marijuana possession and smoking cases that date to 1978 have been dismissed and sealed. Vance's office said 79 percent of those cases concerned people of color. 

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has continued a pilot program that largely excuses low-level marijuana smoking arrests. The number of cases accepted for prosecution in Brooklyn went from 349 in January 2018 to 29 in June 2018, a 91 percent drop.

On Dec. 19, for the first time in the state's history, Gonzalez vacated 28 low-level marijuana convictions through an initiative he began in September.

Manhattan saw a similar decline in the first quarter of its new policy, with a 94 percent drop in marijuana prosecutions from Aug. 1 to Oct. 31.

"Now it's time for New York State to legalize, regulate and expunge," said Vance. "District attorneys in Brooklyn, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Manhattan have shown that prosecutors can safely exercise their discretion and eliminate the needless collateral consequences associated with the criminalization of marijuana. But this shouldn’t be up to district attorneys alone — only our legislature can do justice for all 62 counties in New York State."

How would tax revenue be used?

Cuomo and de Blasio said in February that they support using some of the revenue generated by taxing legal marijuana to help fund the MTA. As part of a 10-point plan to fix the transportation authority, the politicians suggested that revenue raised from congestion pricing, internet sales tax and marijuana legalization could bring $22 billion in bonds for MTA transit investments, which could be put toward the next five-year capital plan.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said during his first news conference in early March that he does not think the revenue should be funneled into the MTA, "period." 

Several state lawmakers have said the revenue should directly benefit communities most affected by the criminalization of the drug.

With Newsday

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