On Tuesday, New York legislators decisively voted to pass a bill legalizing recreational marijuana for adults in the Empire State.
In a show of overwhelming support, the state senate passed the bill 40-23 before handing it off to the assembly, where it was approved in a 100-49 vote. Despite the bill being released a short three days prior, Tuesday’s approval process took only a matter of hours.
Today the legislation then headed to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s (D) desk, where within hours he signed the bill into law.
“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. I look forward to signing this legislation into law,” the governor said in a statement signaling his support for the bill.
Restorative justice and equity have been critical points in the discussions between the governors’ office and legislators during the past weeks. As it stands, New York’s legalization bill will do more than simply legalize marijuana. Senate Majority Leader and co-sponsor of the bill, Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D), said,
“There were many important aspects of this legislation that needed to be addressed correctly—especially the racial disparities that have plagued our state’s response to marijuana use and distribution as well as ensuring public safety—and I am proud that through strong collaboration, we have reached the finish line.”
Equity Provisions In MRTA
The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) will also immediately expunge prior marijuana convictions from New Yorker’s records as well as create protections for cannabis workers against discrimination in housing, educational access, and parental rights. In addition, marijuana odor will no longer be sufficient enough reason for police to conduct a search.
It seems the governor has also acquiesced on another sticking point during preliminary discussions—the reinvestment of marijuana tax revenue in minority communities most affected by prohibition.
With the MRTA Bill, legislators aim to issue 50% of cannabis business licenses to social equity applicants. Additionally, 40% of cannabis tax revenue will go into a minority reinvestment fund, another 40% would be allocated to public schools, and 20% would fund drug rehabilitation programs.
“My goal in carrying this legislation has always been to end the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana prohibition that has taken such a toll on communities of color across our state, and to use the economic windfall of legalization to help heal and repair those same communities,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Liz Krueger (D) who co-sponsored the bill alongside Stewart Cousins. “I believe we have achieved that in this bill, as well as addressing the concerns and input of stakeholders across the board.”
Other Provisions In MRTA
The other major hurdle stalling progress on legalization efforts regarded whether driving while impaired by marijuana would remain a misdemeanor offense or be reduced to a traffic violation.
For now, driving under the influence of cannabis will continue to be a misdemeanor, though the Department of Health will begin a study searching for technology that can more accurately determine if a driver is under the effects of marijuana while operating the vehicle.
Other provisions in the MRTA include allowances for adults to cultivate up to six cannabis plants for personal use with a maximum of twelve plants per household, allowances for marijuana delivery services, and the creation of a new Office of Cannabis Management that would operate within the umbrella of the New York State Liquor Authority.
“After years of tireless advocacy and extraordinarily hard work, that time is coming to an end in New York State,” said Governor Cuomo.
The Big Apple is one giant step closer to legalizing marijuana for adult use.
Yesterday, State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) told reporters that the State Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) had overcome last week’s impasse regarding impaired driving. With that impediment removed, all signs point towards a bill passing in the next few days.
“I think we are really, really really close on (legalizing) marijuana, we have gotten past the impasse of the impaired driving,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We are looking to get language that will I think be satisfactory in the next day or so.”
What’s The Issue?
The issue at hand was whether driving under the influence of marijuana should be treated as a traffic infraction or criminal misdemeanor.
Law enforcement groups, including the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, raised concerns that classifying impaired driving as a traffic infraction would send the wrong message to the public, endangering residents and visitors.
Conversely, legislators have emphasized the importance of reducing marijuana incarcerations, as well as ending the police practice of conducting searches on the basis of marijuana odor alone.
The lack of effective roadside testing technology further complicates things since present-day testing methods can not accurately determine how recently a driver has consumed marijuana.
At The Negotiating Table
Currently, how exactly lawmakers resolved the impasse remains unclear. However, Governor Cuomo has already conceded two key provisions in his legalization plan to the legislature: social equity funding and home-grow.
The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), co-sponsored by Stewart-Cousins and Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Liz Krueger (D), starkly contrasted the governor’s original marijuana bill by allowing New York residents to cultivate cannabis inside their own homes, as well as by setting aside a percentage of marijuana tax revenue to be reinvested in the minority communities that have been most affected by marijuana prohibition.
While the exact language in the bill remains hazy, Senator Krueger said in a radio interview that she is “extremely pleased with the agreement that we have come to.”
Is The Third Time The Charm For Governor Cuomo?
This will be the governor’s third attempt at passing marijuana reform. In 2019 and 2020, Cuomo endeavored to pass a legalization bill through his executive budget, though each time he was thwarted by his own party who criticized the gubernatorial office for prioritizing tax revenue above criminal justice reform. This year, however, the legislature has made it clear that negotiations will take place outside of the budget process.
Regardless of their differences, both Cuomo and the legislature are optimistic that they will reach an agreement soon. The governor made his intention to succeed in legalizing marijuana this go-round by saying, “We’ve tried to do that for the past three years, we have to get it done this year.”
“Since I’ve never gotten this close to the deadline before, I’m feeling that there is impetus to get this done as quickly as possible,” Senator Krueger recently said. “ I am prepared to do everything in my power to close this out, get this bill to both floors, and get it signed by the governor.”
On Thursday, The United States House of Representatives reintroduced a critical cannabis banking bill. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Steve Stivers (R-OH), Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), and Warren Davidson (R-OH) brought the SAFE banking act back to the House along with the support of over 100 additional cosponsors. The bill, which is expected to effortlessly advance, previously passed the house in 2019 and 2020 but was squashed by the Republican-controlled senate. However, now that Democrats control both the White House and Senate, the bill has a real chance of passing.
What Is The SAFE Banking Act?
The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act would allow legitimate cannabis businesses acting within the confines of the law access to the same banking services as other companies.
Currently, despite the industry generating millions of dollars in tax revenue, cannabis entrepreneurs are seen more like criminals in the in the eyes of major financial institutions. Not only are cannabis operations effectively barred from traditional lending, but it’s also nearly impossible for these businesses to legally open a bank account. As a result, dispensaries and other cannabis businesses are obligated to deal primarily in cash-only transactions, making them prime targets for criminals. According to Representative Perlmutter,
“Thousands of employees and businesses across this country have been forced to deal in piles of cash for far too long. It is the responsibility of Congress to step up and take action to align federal and state laws for the safety of our constituents and communities.”
The bill remains largely the same as it was in 2019 and 2020, but with added language that explicitly includes hemp and CBD businesses as well as additional clarification on safe harbor laws and cannabis insurance.
The SAFE Banking Act’s Path Forward
In 2019, The SAFE Banking Act was introduced as a stand-alone bill. Despite overwhelmingly passing the House, it would never see the Senate floor. A year later, House Democrats attempted to embed the bill in part of their larger Coronavirus relief package, pointing out the inherent dangers of operating an “essential business” in a cash-only capacity during the height of a catastrophic pandemic. After considerable criticism from Republicans, the House eventually dropped the SAFE Banking Act from the relief bill’s final draft. Perlmutter harkened back to this subject in his Thursday address, saying,
“In many states, the industry was deemed essential yet forced to continue to operate in all cash, adding a significant public health risk for businesses and their workers. As we begin our economic recovery, allowing cannabis businesses to access the banking system would also mean an influx of cash into the economy and the opportunity to create good-paying jobs.”
The Senate is expected to introduce its own version of the bill this week. For the last two years, this is where the SAFE Banking Act has predominantly run into challenges. However, this time around, the Senate has a more favorable makeup—split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as the tiebreaker. Perlmutter remains optimistic the bill will make it all the way to President Biden’s desk. He said,
“I think this is going to get a full legislative review, and we’re going to get a good product, a good piece of legislation, and send it to the White House.”
New York is on the precipice of completing a deal that would usher legal marijuana into the state. Earlier this week, Governor Cuomo (D) expressed that he and the state Legislators were “very close” to reaching an agreement.
For the third year in a row, the governor has attempted to pass marijuana reform legislation as part of his executive budget. Past efforts at reform from the gubernatorial office have largely been unsuccessful due to disagreements with the more progressive wing of Cuomo’s own party.
This time, however, negotiations will take place outside of the budget process.
Cuomo Criticized For Putting Tax Revenue Above Criminal Justice
Cuomo, who is currently facing a growing number of calls to resign amidst an onslaught of sexual harassment allegations, has been criticized in the past by drug policy reform advocates for pushing a legalization plan that prioritizes maximizing state revenue over reinvesting in the minority communities most victimized by marijuana prohibition.
In response, the governor’s office has released a proposal claiming that some funds from cannabis tax revenue may be used for minority community reinvestment purposes but doesn’t guarantee it. “The devil is in the details,” According to Melissa Moore, the New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. Moore says,
“The governor’s proposal has included some of the language from the MRTA about what the community grants reinvestment fund could be used for, but it hasn’t actually had the lockbox guarantee around funds going to communities.”
There have also been concerns that Cuomo’s plan, the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act (CRTA), won’t do enough to prevent the future criminalization of cannabis users. Under the CRTA plan, possession of marijuana purchased from an unlicensed source would remain a misdemeanor offense with potential jail time. In contrast, the Marijuana Regulation and Tax Act (MRTA) proposed by state legislators would make possession of illicit cannabis up to two pounds of flower or 4.5 ounces of concentrate a violation only punishable with a fine.
While the MRTA allows for six marijuana plants to be grown per household, The CRTA prohibits residents of the state from cultivating any cannabis plants inside their own homes, severely limiting access to consumers who don’t want to purchase from state-licensed dispensaries.
Growing Support For MRTA
NORML, one of the largest cannabis advocacy lobbies in the country, rated both legalization plans at the beginning of this month. The New York NORML Chapter found that “[The] MRTA is far superior to the CRTA,” and gave the legislator’s plan an A- grade while only giving Cuomo’s a C-.
A recent poll conducted by Consensus Strategies found that New Yorkers favor marijuana reform policy that more closely resembles the MRTA. 52% of those surveyed said that they preferred legislation allowing state residents to grow a limited amount of marijuana plants at home, and 51% supported license preferences for social equity applicants.
In a Twitter statement on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D) expressed his support for the legalization efforts taking place in the Big Apple. While he didn’t mention Cuomo by name, he did explicitly show his support for the MRTA plan saying,
“We must ensure that tax dollars flow to communities harmed by over-criminalization; small entrepreneurs and directly impacted people have an opportunity to enter the market through strong social equity provisions; marijuana is not used as pretext for criminalizing Black and Brown people, especially youth; and that individuals weighed down by past criminal convictions are given an opportunity to move on as productive members of society.”
Senator Schumer went on to thank supporters of MRTA, specifically calling out legislators Crystal People-Stokes (D) and Liz Krueger (D)—the two legislators responsible for introducing the bill.
Currently, Senator People-Stokes is optimistic that the legislation will advance before April 1st.
According to the New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D), the Empire State is “very close” to legalizing marijuana.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D) echoed this sentiment on Monday, stating that lawmakers plan to advance the stand-alone legalization bill before passing the budget, which is due on April 1st. However, questions regarding traffic stops and driving while impaired currently have legislators deadlocked.
“We are extremely close. We have reached a little bit of an impasse right now, and it has to do with impaired driving.” State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said at a press conference on Tuesday.
No One Wants To Arrest Unlawfully
Law enforcement agencies have expressed concerns that the classification of driving under the influence of cannabis as a traffic infraction would send the wrong message to the public and encourage New Yorkers to drive while intoxicated from marijuana use. The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York maintains that driving while on cannabis should remain a misdemeanor crime.
In its current form, roadside marijuana testing cannot determine how recently a driver may have used cannabis, adding an extra layer of difficulty in policing motorists who use marijuana.
Despite the impasse, Stewart-Cousins remains optimistic about the bill’s eventual passing, saying
“It’s a matter of when, not if.” State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins
Originally, Gov. Cuomo included his own version of the legislation in his annual budget request, though it was omitted Monday in a Senate resolution. It seems state legislators would prefer to handle the marijuana issue outside of budget negotiations.
New York’s Third Opportunity to Legalize Marijuana
Past efforts from the governor to bring pot to New York have flopped largely due to disagreements within his own party regarding equity and revenue spending. While state lawmakers sought to spend large swaths of new tax revenue on supporting minority communities that have been disproportionately affected by marijuana prohibition, Gov. Cuomo’s previous plans allocated the majority of funds under state control.
Gov. Cuomo isn’t the only one ready for recreational marijuana to hit the state. According to a recent survey conducted by Sienna College, New Yorkers overwhelmingly support legalizing cannabis for adult use. The poll found that 59% of those surveyed were in favor of legalization, while only a meager 33% were opposed. Last year, in the neighboring state of New Jersey, voters decisively cast ballots in favor of a constitutional amendment legalizing cannabis, allowing lawmakers to set up the necessary regulatory systems for a recreational market.
During his Monday press conference, Cuomo said, “I think this should’ve passed years ago. I think too many people have been imprisoned, incarcerated, and punished. Too many of those people are Black, Latino, and poor. It’s exaggerated the injustice of the justice system.”