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New York Finally Decided to Make Cannabis Legal. Now What?

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Here’s everything to know about New York becoming the 15th state to legalize the recreational use of cannabis.

In the world of cannabis advocacy, the visual of Charlie Brown being denied his field goal kick by a ball-snatching Lucy elicits immense empathy.

On scales both small and grand, the struggle for progress has been both slow and frustrating. Such was certainly the case for the state of New York, which has spent years trying — and failing — to install some form of legalized recreational cannabis market. On March 31, that battle at last came to an end when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed S.854-A/A.1248-A into law.

Of course, for many, the beginning of a new, legal cannabis era for New York means another, even larger battle is now about to get underway.

Before we look at what this news means for New York, it’s important to understand the context that led to this action. As noted, New York lawmakers have been attempting something like this for years, so why now?

You could argue for momentum as a factor. New York’s own Chuck Schumer is currently spearheading the effort for federal legalization and reform. With such efforts underway, it makes sense that the Senate Majority Leader would want to see his state step out of the dark ages first. However, as is often the case, there are also reasons having absolutely nothing to do with cannabis (or rights with regards to consuming and selling it) at play here as well.

More specifically, it appears the accusations of sexual harassment against Gov. Cuomo made by multiple women in late February may have inspired the now-disgraced politician to seek an expedited victory in the form of cannabis legalization.

In a New York Times article summarizing the news, reporter Luis Ferré-Sadurní drew the obvious connections as well.

“The yearslong push to legalize recreational marijuana in New York, a proposal that often found its momentum stalled by some political trip wire, received an unexpected boost from Mr. Cuomo’s recent political scandals,” wrote Ferré-Sadurní.

“For Democratic lawmakers,” he continued, “it was a matter of bridging the differences between their marijuana bill and the governor’s proposal, which he unveiled earlier this year. But the negotiations were thrown into question when multiple women began accusing Mr. Cuomo of sexual harassment in late February. The accusations, along with scrutiny over his handling of nursing homes during the pandemic, engulfed his administration in scandal and left his political future in the balance.”

In a Spectrum News poll conducted in October 2020, 61% of New Yorkers said they were in favor of enacting reform at the state level. Thus, choosing to push cannabis reforms seemingly amounts to an easy win, right?

Well that really depends on who you’re asking.

It would be a massive disservice to write-off New York’s legalization moment as the result of a politician desperately searching for a “get of out jail free” card as it also serves as a huge win for equity advocates who fought hard to ensure that a significant portion of the tax revenue generated by legal weed in the Empire State would be reinvested back into those communities most harmed by past drug policy.

In the end, Democratic lawmakers engaged in the effort proved victorious, with 40% of tax revenue from cannabis sales earmarked for communities “where Black and Latino people have been arrested on marijuana charges in disproportionate numbers,” per the New York Times.

People convicted of cannabis-related offenses that are now no longer criminalized will have their records automatically expunged. Under New York’s new law, people with past convictions and those involved in the illicit cannabis market will be given pathways to participate in the new legal market.

The economic impact is profound as well, with the New York Times reporting that the state’s recreational market “is expected to eventually generate $350 million in yearly tax revenue and billions of dollars in annual sales” while also spotlighting the “new businesses and thousands of new jobs” that will be created as a result of legalization.

In terms of the practical information, here’s what folks can expect to happen – and a few things that already have!

As soon as Gov. Cuomo signed the bill, it immediately became legal to use cannabis in the state of New York. Sales will follow too, but first regulations will have to be approved and instituted. The numbers: New Yorkers ages 21 and up may possess up to three ounces of cannabis (or 24 grams of concentrated cannabis) for recreational use. They will also be permitted to keep up to five pounds of cannabis at home as long as “reasonable steps” are taken to ensure it’s secure.

In addition to building an equity component into the state law, Liz Krueger — a sponsor of the bill — has stated that people are legally allowed to smoke in public wherever smoking tobacco is legal. That makes New York far more progressive than California, for instance, where protections on public consumption are all-but-nonexistent.

The potential for local jurisdictions to fight or overrule this particular element, however, remains in play, underscoring the difference between passing a law and its successful implementation.

Of the other noteworthy aspects in the bill: allowance to grow up to six plants at home, less restrictions to qualify for New York’s medicinal marijuana program (started in 2014), and a potential “go live” date for dispensaries of 2022.

For now, all eyes will turn to the Cannabis Control Board: a newly established, five-member group charged with writing the codes to determine how the law will be implemented.

In a New York Magazine article titled “Who’s Getting Rich From Weed Legalization in New York,” Matt Stieb detailed the task that lies ahead for the NYCCB.

“Among the problems they must solve are how many licenses to offer and how to distribute them across the state, and the standards for all aspects of production from seed to sale — two massive projects that will dictate just how big the market is.”

Therein lies the rub: good laws are one thing; ensuring they’re implemented with conviction and integrity is quite another. One battle has ended. Another begins.

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