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New York answers questions about cannabis legalization as regulations are drafted

Jesse King

Leaders in New York State government are working to advance new medical and recreational-use cannabis rules. Meantime, the state is holding several “cannabis conversation” events to answer questions about how the drug will be regulated.

2021 saw the enactment of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. The sale of cannabis for recreational use is still prohibited in New York as the state puts together regulations.

This week, legislative leaders cheered the passage of a bill that would take the first steps of creating a regulated marketplace by granting temporary licenses to allow hemp growers to grow marijuana for adult use.

On Thursday, the state’s Cannabis Control Board gave approval to regulations that make changes to the state’s medical marijuana program. The changes that will be up for 60 days of public comment relate to packaging and labeling of products, and other efficiencies for producers.

While the MRTA legalized the recreational use of cannabis for adults ages 21 and up, regulations for retail sales have not yet been published. Home cultivation rules are not to be published until after the first retail sales.

Meantime the state’s Office of Cannabis Management is answering questions from New Yorkers across the state, with a series of 11 “Cannabis Conversations” set to wrap up next week.

Cannabis Control Board Chair Tremaine Wright spoke during a recent forum focused on the Capital Region.

“So let’s start with the most basic question. What is cannabis? Well, the scientific name is cannabis sativa. I know you’ve already heard it called by so many other names like weed, pot, and marijuana. However, we will not be using the term marijuana here because it has a long history of being associated with racial profiling,” said Wright.

Wright described New York’s marijuana law as shifting away from policies that centered on law enforcement and persecution to policies that support public health and social justice.

The cannabis law brought automatic expungements of past marijuana convictions.

Wright described how cannabis will be taxed in the state. An excise tax related to the amount of THC in a cannabis product will be applied between wholesalers and retailers. Sales tax revenues are envisioned to be reinvested in communities.

“These taxes are used to cover the cost of the OCM’s operations, law enforcement training, and programs supporting equity applicants. After those costs, 40 percent of the remaining tax revenue goes to supporting schools across New York State. Forty percent will be reinvested in communities most hurt by the disproportionate policing when cannabis was illegal. And 20 percent will support drug treatment programs and public education campaigns,” said Wright.

As to public use and housing, Wright explained that any place protected by New York’s Clean Indoor Air Act tobacco-free law also applies to cannabis smoke. As such, municipalities with local laws that only include tobacco will need to update them to include marijuana.

IDs will be required at retail establishments, similar to alcohol sales.

Regulations for food and agricultural products including honey and syrup infusions have not been determined. Wright said the state wants to support an industry that includes innovation.

Communities that opted out of retail sales ahead of December 31st deadline can opt back in at any time, but delivery to communities that have banned consumption lounges or retail stores will not be prevented. Zoning to effectively prevent marijuana businesses from opening is also not allowed. More than a third of New York municipalities opted out of both dispensaries and consumption lounges ahead of the deadline.

Wright explained that New York is not setting caps on the number of licenses it will administer, and that delivery and retail licenses will be separate.

One of the most frequently asked questions, according to Wright, relates to who can start a cannabis business, and how new businesses can complete against established, larger out-of-state companies.

Priority, she said, will be given to social equity applicants, including minority-women-owned businesses, distressed farmers, those who have been harmed by over-policing and mass incarceration, and disabled and veteran-owned businesses.

“What we are trying to do is build a supportive ecosystem that allows people to participate no matter their economic background and we want everyone to know they have a real opportunity at a license as well as support so that their businesses will be ongoing enterprises that are successful and have the opportunity for growth,” said Wright.

Wright predicts draft cannabis regulations will be released by late winter/early spring. After a 60-day comment period and final approval, applications can be submitted.

Meantime, the state has warned against so-callled “pop-up” dispensaries where businesses “gift” cannabis with the purchase of another product. Wright said Tuesday that cease-and-desist letters have been sent to two dozen operators accused of “gifting” cannabis.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.