New York Lawmakers Vote to Legalize Marijuana

By: - March 31, 2021 12:00 am

Head grower Elizabeth Keyser shows flowering medical marijuana plants at the Curaleaf medical cannabis facility in Ravena, New York. The state is poised to become the 16th to legalize recreational marijuana. Hans Pennink/The Associated Press

After years of wrangling, New York leaders are finally poised to legalize recreational marijuana.

Companion bills approved Tuesday night by the state House and Senate and backed by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo would eliminate penalties for possessing three ounces of marijuana or less, create a system for taxing and regulating marijuana sales to adults, and help low-income and minority communities hit hard by the war on drugs.

“The bill we have held out for in this state will create a nation-leading model for legalization,” Democratic state Sen. Liz Krueger, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said before casting her vote. “New York’s program will not just talk the talk on racial justice, it will walk the walk.”

Both bills passed along party lines. In the Senate, three Democrats joined the entire Republican delegation in opposing the bill, while the House voted 100-49 to approve the bill.

New York will join 15 other states where voters or lawmakers have opted to allow recreational marijuana sales. It was previously one of 25 states that allow marijuana to be sold only to patients with certain medical conditions.

Lawmakers in some left-leaning states also may legalize recreational pot this year. The Democratic-controlled Virginia legislature voted to do so last month. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, asked lawmakers to move up the timeline to July 1 rather than 2024.

New Mexico’s Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham convened a special session this week to consider legalization. And lawmakers in other states, such as Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island, also are considering legalization bills.

But efforts to allow recreational marijuana sales failed this year in Hawaii, Maryland, North Dakota and Wyoming. And in South Dakota, where voters in November chose to legalize recreational sales, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem is fighting the measure in court.

The debate over the New York bill resembled the debates in other states. Proponents say that taxing and regulating marijuana makes practical sense and that it’s time to rethink drug laws that have been more aggressively enforced in low-income, minority neighborhoods.

Opponents, meanwhile, say marijuana is an addictive drug with unknown health impacts. They say legalization could lead people to drive while they’re high, could encourage children and teenagers to use marijuana, and could make it harder for law enforcement to fight crime.

“This is a disaster waiting to happen,” said New York state Sen. Mario Mattera, a Republican, during floor debate on the bill. He called marijuana a “gateway” and said he has family members fighting drug use disorders whose drug use began with marijuana and escalated to cocaine and acid.

The New York bill would allow towns and cities to regulate where and when pot shops and on-site consumption lounges can operate, and allow individuals to grow, harvest and process up to six cannabis plants at home at any one time.

The bill also is packed with social justice provisions, which have in recent years become a cornerstone of marijuana legalization efforts. For instance, it would automatically expunge people’s criminal records of certain marijuana-related offenses.

It would also spend 40% of recreational pot tax revenue on aid for communities with high rates of marijuana-related arrests and convictions, such as by funding mental health services, substance abuse treatment and job training. Cuomo’s office has estimated that legalizing marijuana could raise $350 million in tax revenue each year.

And the bill includes several provisions to help “social and economic equity” marijuana entrepreneurs, such as racial minorities, women and disabled veterans. It would give such entrepreneurs access to low-interest loans, an incubator program, and priority consideration when applying for cannabis business licenses. Such social equity programs have floundered in other states, however.

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Sophie Quinton

Sophie Quinton writes about fiscal and economic policy for Stateline. Previously, she wrote for National Journal.