Many Unanswered Questions On Marijuana Legalization In NY

Jan 5, 2019

Governor Andrew Cuomo is set to release details of a plan to make recreational marijuana legal in New York when he outlines his state budget proposal later this month. But the Democrat concedes that there are many unanswered questions about how to proceed.

Cuomo, who less than two years ago called marijuana a “gateway drug,” says he still has some questions and concerns about legalizing the drug for recreational use. But he says he’s working with a panel of experts, including law enforcement, and health officials who have determined it can be done safely, and that the “benefits outweigh the risks." The governor says his position has also been influenced by the neighboring states of Massachusetts and New Jersey that have legalized marijuana or are in the process of doing so.

“You’ll just force people to drive to Massachusetts or drive to New Jersey and then come back into this state and use it in this state,” Cuomo said.

The governor says he’s working out a lot of the details right now on how to implement the program, including what the age requirement should be to gain access to the drug.

“How old, how many stores, how much marijuana do you sell to a person, what are the tax revenues?” Cuomo said. “The devil is in the details.”

There are many ideas on how to best use the revenue from the sale of marijuana, including one to help fix New York City’s subways.  

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes is sponsoring a bill she says would help right the wrongs created by the decades of marijuana prohibition. Peoples-Stokes, who is African American, says arrests for using the drug have fallen disproportionately on black and Hispanic New Yorkers, while white residents have rarely been punished. Her measure, which is sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger in the state Senate, would dedicate 50 percent of revenues raised from taxing marijuana sales to a Community Grant Reinvestment Fund, directed at neighborhoods most affected by prohibition. It would fund programs like job training, afterschool activities and reentry programs for people coming out of prison. Peoples-Stokes says it’s very important that legalization of marijuana include reparations for communities most negatively affected.

“It’s critical,” Peoples-Stokes said.

She says it will save the state money because fewer people will be in prison on minor drug charges, and will instead be able to be home to take care of their families. 

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who chairs the Health Committee, sponsored the law to implement medical marijuana in New York a few years ago, and supports legalizing the recreational use of the drug.  

Gottfried says he does not necessarily back dedicating sales tax revenues to a specific fund, though he does want to end inequities in the state’s criminal justice system over past enforcement of the prohibition of the drug.  

“One reasons why I hate the term ‘recreational use’, is that this is not about people having a good time at parties,” said Gottfried. “This is about undoing and preventing the damage that our prohibition system does.”

Gottfried says he’d like to see past criminal records for marijuana related convictions erased.   

The Assemblyman credits Cuomo and his staff for reaching out to supporters, and stakeholders, like marijuana growing businesses to get ideas on how to craft the bill. Gottfried says he does not want to see sales and distribution of the drug come under the control of big businesses, with existing distributors of medical marijuana having a greater influence than smaller startup companies.

And he also supports allowing New Yorkers to grow a limited amount of marijuana at home.

“In some product areas we do allow home production. If you want to brew beer or wine in your basement you’re free to do that,” Gottfried said. “Just don’t try to sell it to your neighbors."

Not everyone is in favor of legalizing marijuana in New York.

The New York State Association of County Health Officials issued a statement, saying they have “serious concerns” and urging that legalization be approached “thoughtfully and with extreme caution." 

The county officials say no one under 21 should be permitted to use the drug, and any new rules should fall under the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act to ensure children, and other vulnerable populations are not exposed to marijuana use or secondhand smoke. The group also wants toxicology studies conducted to set standards for impaired driving under the use of the drug. The health officials say they are already dealing with the devastation from opioid abuse, and do not want to see the state inadvertently create another public health crisis.