New York legalizes recreational cannabis; multi-stage implementation begins

Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Office

On March 31, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (S.854/ A.1248), making New York the 15th state to legalize recreational adult use of marijuana. 

The legislation was passed by the New York State Senate on Tuesday with a vote of 40 to 23 and the Assembly with a vote of 100 to 49. The majority of Republican lawmakers voted against it along with a small number of Democrats, who are concerned that the bill doesn’t go far enough to prevent an increase in impaired driving.

In New York, adults ages 21 and older, can now possess up to three ounces of marijuana or 24 grams of concentrated cannabis such as oil cartridges. The legislation also allows the consumption of cannabis in public spaces where tobacco smoking is allowed under the Clean Indoor Air Act; though the smoking of cannabis will remain prohibited in schools, workplaces and vehicles.

The legislation will also minimize restrictions on the current medical marijuana program. More medical conditions will be covered, the number of caregivers for each patient will increase, and the bill will allow patients to cultivate medical cannabis at home.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act was initially agreed upon on March 27 by Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. The act establishes the framework to develop New York’s recreational marijuana program on the basis of social and economic justice.

The Marijuana and Taxation Act has the potential to bring new economic opportunities to New  Yorkers statewide. The legal marijuana industry in New York is projected to create 30,000 to 60,000 jobs according to the Governor’s Office. Along with this, it is estimated that the State’s recreational marijuana program would collect $350 million in taxes and revenues annually.

The governor stated that the legislation would also focus on community reinvestment to rectify the harsh enforcement of marijuana prohibition in New York.

“Legalizing adult-use cannabis isn’t just about creating a new market that will provide jobs and benefit the economy — it’s also about justice for long-marginalized communities and ensuring those who’ve been unfairly penalized in the past will now get a chance to benefit,” Cuomo said. 

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie specified the benefits of this legislation for the communities that have been devastated by the state’s drug laws.

“The MRTA (Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act) does not just legalize the adult use of marijuana, but it rights decades of disproportionally targeting people of color, ensures they are included in the legal marijuana industry and reinvests in education and communities that have been harmed,” Heastie said.

The tax revenue the marijuana industry accumulates would cover the costs for the program’s operation and implementation. The remaining funds of the taxation will be split three ways; 40 percent to education, 40 percent to the Community Grants Reinvestment Fund, and 20 percent to the Drug Treatment and Public Education Fund.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has been in support of the Marijuana and Taxation Act since its introduction to the State Legislature in 2013, under the sponsorship of Senator Kreuger and Assembly Majority Leader Peoples-Stokes.

Melissa Moore, the New York state director of the DPA, stated that the eight years it took to pass this legislation made it one of the most “ambitious marijuana legislation programs” in the nation.

Moore continues, “the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act is an outright victory for the communities hit hardest by the failed war on drugs. By placing community reinvestment, social equity, and justice front and center, this law is the new gold standard for reform efforts nationwide.”

People that faced previous convictions for marijuana offenses that are now decriminalized will receive automatic expungement of their records. The legislation will also allow these individuals to become licensed to participate legally in the new market.

The new Office of Cannabis Management would enforce the comprehensive regulatory framework to control the medical and recreational use of marijuana. The OCM would be governed by a board of five members, three chosen by the Governor and one appointed by each house. OCM would be an independent office operating within the New York State Liquor Authority.

The OCM would be responsible for the creation and distribution of business licenses for the state’s recreational marijuana program. There will be a two-tier licensing system to separate those who grow and process marijuana products and those who own retail stores.

The social and economic equity program implemented under this legislation will allocate 50 percent of these licenses to businesses owned by minorities, women, distressed farmers, or disabled veterans as encouragement to participate in the market.

The legislation will also allow the state to issue licenses for cannabis delivery businesses. This will allow customers to have marijuana at their home. 

New Yorkers will also be able to grow their own cannabis at home 18 months after the first dispensaries open. The legislation permits 12 plants maximum, six mature plants and six immature plants, per household which can be grown indoors or outdoors.

It will remain illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana. The New York Department of Health will conduct research studies with higher education to detect a driver impaired by cannabis. The DOH will implement proper rules and regulations for this detection once the study is complete.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act allows the legal sale of recreational marijuana to  begin April 1, 2022. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Spokes, the sponsor of the Assembly bill, said it could take 18 months to two years for lawmakers to establish regulations for cannabis sales in New York.