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Marijuana legalization and NY: Recreational push likely in 2019 legislative session

How should potential marijuana tax revenue be used? Politicians are at odds.

With New York State legislation under Democratic-control, new

With New York State legislation under Democratic-control, new marijuana laws could go into effect as early as January 2019.  Photo Credit: Getty Images/Universal Images Gr/Diverse Images/UIG

Marijuana legalization could become a reality in 2019 after Democrats take control of both houses of the New York State Legislature.

Within the past year, city and state officials have taken steps toward possible legalization, with public listening sessions and governmental reports.

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What’s the latest?

Recreational adult use of marijuana hasn't been made legal yet, but that hasn't stopped politicians in the city from arguing over how the potential tax revenue should be spent.

Based on a retail tax rate between 7 and 15 percent, revenue from legalizing marijuana could reach between $110.3 million and $428.1 million per year, according to a report released by NYU Wagner's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management.

Former City Council Speaker and current public advocate candidate Melissa Mark-Viverito held a rally Thursday in support of her plan to use marijuana tax revenue to fix the city's beleaguered subway system.

"I'm making this a priority," she promised.

City Councilman Rafael Espinal, who is also running for public advocate, called his rival's plan "misguided." He believes the revenue should be pumped back into communities of color, which have been unfairly targeted by the state's drug laws.

"This is the perfect opportunity to right a historic wrong," Espinal said in an emailed statement.

State draws closer to legalizing marijuana 

A series of public hearings that endorsed the decriminalization of marijuana were held earlier this year after the state Department of Health released a report advocating for a change in law. The public's input will help guide Statehouse representatives as they draft legislation.

The six-month study, commissioned by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, was released in July and determined the benefits of legal marijuana outweigh the risks. The health 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.

The listening sessions included a working group consisting of experts in public safety, economics and health. 

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, severe chronic pain and other ailments.

How likely is it that the State Legislature will legalize marijuana in 2019?

Sen. Liz Krueger, who represents the East Side of Manhattan, has introduced several bills since 2013 and is hopeful she'll finally see a vote in her favor in 2019.

“The actions of the governor’s office over the last few months makes me optimistic that we have a real chance to address legalization of adult-use marijuana,” said Krueger in a statement via email. “I have been impressed with the seriousness and openness with which the governor’s working group has approached its task.”

For New Yorkers who have suffered unnecessarily under prohibition, especially communities of color, Krueger said legalization cannot arrive sooner. 

Andrew H. Sidman, associate professor and deputy chair of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said there's a good chance the new legislature moves on the bill. 

“Democratic control over both chambers of the legislature, coupled with the replacement of several IDC (Independent Democratic Conference) members with more progressive Democrats bodes well for all manner of liberal policies, including legalization of marijuana.”

However, he's skeptical of whether Cuomo would use his political muscle to shepherd a bill to his desk. 

“[Cuomo] has worked hard to position himself as a centrist politician,” Sidman said. “[If Cuomo runs for the presidency] I also think he is smart enough to know his best route to winning the Democratic nomination is by staying center-left, not by trying to outdo the progressives that will vie for the nomination. Cuomo doesn’t have the reputation for that.”

Is Mayor Bill de Blasio for or against marijuana legalization?

The mayor has not endorsed full recreational legalization but has backed efforts to reduce the effects of marijuana enforcement.

A 30-day study by the NYPD collected input from the city's district attorneys, public defenders, City Council, community groups, policy advocates, faith leaders and more to craft a policy aimed at reducing unnecessary marijuana arrests.

As of Sept. 1, most New Yorkers found smoking in public face criminal summonses instead of undergoing an arrest.

“Nobody’s destiny should hinge on a minor non-violent 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.”

Those who are on parole or probation, have existing criminal warrants, lack identification or have a recent history of violence can still be arrested for smoking in public, according to the NYPD policy. 

The NYPD and the mayor believe the new policy would reduce marijuana-related arrests by 10,000 per year.

However, de Blasio has said that he's still studying the effects of legalization in other states.

“We know what it looks like to legalize in our society, because some states have done it," the mayor said in an appearance earlier this year on Power 105.1 FM. "And I’m trying to get a sense of what it's meant with them.”

First lady Chirlane McCray has been open about using marijuana when she was younger and believes it should be regulated.

“I believe we should legalize it because I don’t think people should be penalized and punished for using it," McCray said. 

Decriminalization efforts in the city

Marijuana possession convictions have drastically dropped in Manhattan and Brooklyn as their respective district attorneys pursue decriminalization efforts.

Starting 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. 

Additionally, close to 3,000 outstanding misdemeanor marijuana possessions 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 to 29 in June — a 91 percent drop. 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.”

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