In the post-budget session, marijuana reformers look for a legislative path

Legislative Gazette photo
Advocates for the legalization of marijuana in New York held a rally outside the Governor’s Office two weeks ago in hopes of getting it passed in the state budget.

With recreational marijuana dropped from budget in the final days of negotiations, the Drug Policy Alliance and other legalization advocates are focusing their efforts on the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (S.1527/A.1617).

The legislation would make more than 50 changes to current drug laws in order to legalize, tax and regulate recreational marijuana for adults in New York.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo.

In the State of the State Address given in January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he hoped to get marijuana legislation approved in the budget this year, but it was not included in the final plan.

Gov. Cuomo and legislators have signaled they agree on the idea of legalizing marijuana by the end of the legislative session, but there were too many details to work out to be included in the adopted budget.

“We will get marijuana done. It’s not a question of political desire, it’s a question of practical reality of how you put the new system in place,” Cuomo said during a recent WAMC radio interview with Legislative Gazette Publisher Alan Chartock.

The Krueger/Peoples-Stokes bill states that marijuana prohibition is to blame for putting “thousands of New Yorkers into the criminal justice system for non-violent offenses, inhibiting an otherwise law-abiding citizens’ ability to access housing, student loans, employment opportunities, voting, and other vital services.

“Additionally, rather than curtailing youth marijuana usage, existing laws have led to an illicit market that has done little to address marijuana usage by minors.”

The bill memo also cites spending by law enforcement, public opinion and potential new tax revenues as reasons for legalizing marijuana for adults.

“The intent of this act is to regulate, control, and tax marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. The MRTA will generate millions of dollars in new revenue, prevent access to marijuana by those under the age of 21, reduce the illegal drug market and violent crime, reduce participation of otherwise law-abiding citizens in an illicit market and create new industries and increase employment,” the bill states.

“With the enactment of the MRTA the New York State Legislature has an opportunity to end the racially disparate impact of existing marijuana policies.”

An estimated 1.5 million New Yorkers use marijuana on a regular basis, half of whom live in New York City, according to the bill. In May of 2018, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report that estimates there is a $3.1 billion adult-use marijuana market in New York state.

Legalization could generate a projected $436 million in tax revenue, while New York City could accrue an additional $336 million in tax revenue, the bill projects.

This legislation would direct 50 percent of that tax revenue to establish the Community Grants Reinvestment Fund, aimed at giving back to the communities that have been the most disproportionately affected by current marijuana laws.

Earlier this month advocates for marijuana legalization rallied outside the Governor’s Office in the Capitol in a final push to get legal marijuana in the budget. Their message was that legalization would be beneficial to poor and minority communities.

“Black and Brown communities have had entire generations taken away because of a misguided ‘war on drugs’ that conveniently ignored white families,” said Stanley Fritz, New York City Campaign Manager at Citizen Action. “Legalizing marijuana gives us a chance to begin righting those wrongs.”

The bill currently resides in the Assembly Codes Committee and the Senate Finance Committee.