Out of the Shadows: New York Legalizes Adult-Use Marijuana

“Today, in passing the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, the New York State legislature took enormous strides toward ending the decades-long war on drugs and its discriminatory impact on people of color.”


Albany was all about cannabis on Tuesday, with New York lawmakers debating the issue across three committee meetings, a few more hours in the senate, and a marathon, almost seven-hour session in the assembly. This morning, Governor Andrew Cuomo tweeted that he had signed the three-way deal, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act

For hours on Tuesday, State Senator Liz Krueger passionately defended the seven years of effort she’d devoted to New York’s legalization plan leading up to its 40-23 victory in the Senate. In the Assembly, Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes oversaw the day-long defense of the effort. Late in the day doubters in the senate formed what seemed like a firing line to pepper Krueger with the same questions she’d heard for the better part of a decade of working on the issue.

The Governor would applaud the efforts of Albany’s cannabis champions in an evening statement prior to singing. “Tonight, the New York State Legislature took the first step in a major leap forward for the Empire State by passing legislation to legalize adult-use cannabis,” Cuomo said. “I thank Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and the many legislators who worked tirelessly on this issue for securing passage of this historic legislation.”

Cuomo went on to offer a final reminder of New York’s troubled past with cannabis enforcement on the eve of putting his signature on the bill. “For too long the prohibition of cannabis disproportionately targeted communities of color with harsh prison sentences and after years of hard work, this landmark legislation provides justice for long-marginalized communities, embraces a new industry that will grow the economy, and establishes substantial safety guards for the public,” he said.

But the road to get to those congratulations yesterday was a long one.

During the debate in the Senate, State Senator Fred Akshar was Kreuger’s first sparring partner. He started by questioning the bill’s stated intention to reduce violent crime. How would it accomplish this? Krueger quickly pointed to the reality that much of the drug trade in New York is currently controlled by violent criminals.

“When people go to buy their marijuana they don’t know who it is they’re buying from, there’s no licensing. They don’t know if they’re organized crime,” Krueger said. “They don’t know if that same person is selling other much more dangerous drugs.”

While Kreuger did not claim the bill as a fix-all to criminal elements currently involved in the cannabis supply chain, she argued that its provisions will help. “I do think that people will choose within the two options, an illegal dangerous option, and a legal regulated option, to buy marijuana through our legal regulated options,” she said, pointing to the resources that would remain after legalization to target serious threats to society. “We expect to actually save up to $500 million in our criminal justice system simply because we have legalized marijuana. So we won’t be using our police to pick up kids.”

Akshar went on to question Kreuger on whether she’d been in the room for the final negotiations between the Assembly, Senate, and Governor. She said most of it had been left to staff, but she had been readily available at all hours to provide input to everyone taking part in that negotiating process until the deal got done. 

The conversation turned to who else was in the room for that final language deal. Akshar wanted to know if mental health professionals, substance use disorder professionals. Parent-Teacher associations, school leaders, or police officers had a seat at the table.

“The answer is yes,” Kreuger replied and went on to point out how all the years at the table with those groups informed the final language. ”And it was me sometimes, and it was staff. This bill has been percolating into a bigger and bigger, and changed —and I believe better bill —for over seven years.”

Kreuger reminded everyone that when she first introduced the bill in late 2013,  everyone thought she was crazy. And she said that may still be the case. “But the fact is we had hearings, we took meetings, endless, endless meetings with anyone who asked us. We met at the local level. I would go out to people’s communities if they invited me there to talk about their concerns. So, in truthfulness, I’m not sure I have ever met with as diverse a group of people as I did over the seven years that my Chief of Staff and I were working on this stuff.”

Kreuger mentioned advertising restrictions and other ways to avoid appealing to children as early and easy concessions to PTA groups. Also important was leaving room for municipalities to locally opt-out of the state’s legalization plan, with the option to jump into the mix when they see fit.

For much of the time, the debate in both houses centered around the impact on law enforcement. Across New York law enforcement there are only a few hundred drug recognition experts. Part of the argument revolved around law enforcement needing money upfront to get more DREs, despite the fact that the current number has already been serving New York’s millions of cannabis users, most of whom are now expected to transition to the legal market.

Despite the lack of cash upfront, Kreuger argued there’s a significant amount of resources committed to make sure we have more local police and state troopers who are trained in the skills to evaluate drivers intoxicated with marijuana and getting them off the road. More understanding of the financial aspects of that process would arise as the enforcement mechanisms are developed in the next 18 months before the market opens. Kreuger also pointed to the governor’s office commitment that police have the resources they need to combat impaired driving. 

But again, Kreuger kept things realistic saying the DRE topic was important as she addressed these question: “I don’t want anyone listening to us to imagine that we’re starting today from a place where there is zero marijuana being used by people who drive cars, because it is being used, and they are driving throughout the state of New York.”

Eventually, Senator Anthony Palumbo queried Kreuger on a variety of topics that included what happens to parents who use weed compared to alcohol use in child custody situations; the five-pound limit around homegrown pot; and police not being allowed to search a vehicle solely based on the smell of burnt marijuana.

Kreuger explained that there was indeed some confusion on the five-pound limit when talking about the gross weight of the plants compared to the usable marijuana. “The five-pound example wasn’t actually a great example,” Kreuger said. “But you might have several ounces of usable marijuana in your home. That isn’t evidence that you’re using it every day. That’s not evidence that you’re using it at all, actually. So just like, I guess in some people’s houses they have cases and cases of wine or beer or other spirits. That’s not evidence of anything other than they have a lot of bottles of liquor in their home.”

Another part of the bill Kreuger was questioned on came in regards to law enforcement being forbidden to cooperate with federal authorities on now state-legal cannabis crimes. The opposition, like that in 15 states before it, argued this lack of compliance with the federal law was a setup for failure. Kreuger compared it to law enforcement not cooperating with ICE deportation efforts in recent years.  

“I think it’s a fairly parallel situation, and every once in a while, you hear a story coming out, and something gets resolved or not, but I don’t think it’s been a huge issue,” Kreuger said, “And I don’t think it’s been a real issue in any of the other 15 states that have legal marijuana, even though they’re under the same federal laws we are.”

Senator George Borrello began with concerns that the cannabis industry seemingly wouldn’t be as strict as the hospitality business in NY. Borrello explained he was deeply versed in the licensing structure meant to prevent the shady figures of New York’s past from operating liquor establishments, pointing out that a felony was almost a guaranteed rejection. He asked if the bill would really let people with drug dealing felonies operate in the legal market.

“Yes, and of course a major portion of this bill is to expunge the records of people who got caught up in the criminal justice system involved with cannabis,” Kreuger said, basically asserting if those convictions don’t exist anymore they can’t have an impact on licensing. “So our goal is to expunge the records of people who had cannabis convictions and open them up to be able to be full citizens where they can apply to actually work legally in this business. Where they have no risk of problems with getting an education because they had a cannabis record, or being able to apply for certain kinds of jobs, or being able to live in certain places. So yes, part of the goal of this law is to ensure that people who may have been participating in an activity that was illegal will now be able to become taxpayers, owners, work in stores, etc.”

Borrello pressured Kreuger on whether people selling other drugs or with gun charges would qualify, offenses that wouldn’t get caught up in a mass expungement sweep.  Kreuger said the agency handing out licenses determines whether they believe they can be a trustworthy, reliable business person in this field and if so then they will be allowed. And it will be through a regulatory process and evaluation.

Borrello went on to ask how restaurants would be protected from edibles, adding that he has numerous concerns. “That’s because as an operator, I am responsible for you being sober. I’m responsible for your intoxication level yet someone can walk in with a handful of very potent gummies and consume them on-premise.” He proposed a situation in which people would head to bars to consume edibles, and he asked what would happen if they were to “leave that establishment, get into an accident and kill someone. In that scenario, especially with the restaurant restrictions that we now have where, you know, these people are going to be… it’s gonna be difficult to stop these people because of all the freedom that they’re going to have to consume and drive.” 

“Well, the irony is that exists right now,” Kreuger replied, “We don’t know when somebody comes in your bar, whether they have used marijuana before they got there, or popping other illegal drugs or not. They are wandering around the world they’re using what they use. And so we faced this risk and reality today.”

Although legislators argued until 10 PM, Kreuger finally triumphed when the bill was sent to the Governors desk. Twelve hours later cannabis possession became legal in NY with the Governor’s tweet. 

Various advocates weighed in on this historic day. Empire State NORML Deputy Director Troy Smit said, “We stand on the shoulders of giants. It’s taken a great amount of work and perseverance by activists, patients, and consumers to go from being the cannabis arrest capital of the world to lead the world with a legalized market dedicated to equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

Smit admitted things weren’t all positive, but there is plenty to work with. “This might not be the perfect piece of legislation, but today, cannabis consumers can hold their heads high and smell the flowers,” Smit said. “Senator Krueger and Assemblywoman Peoples-Stokes have laid the groundwork for marijuana justice and a consumer-centric industry. Now, it’s time for the Office of Cannabis Management to take up their torch and implement regulations that protect patient and consumer rights. In the words of our late Director, Doug Greene — Cannabis Excelsior!”

NORML’s national leadership also weighed in on the big victory. “These votes are historic because they signal the beginning of the end of the racially discriminatory policies that have long made the Empire State the marijuana arrest capital of the United States, if not the world,” said Erik Altieri, NORML Executive director. “Once enacted, this measure will end the practice of annually arresting tens-of-thousands of New Yorkers for low-level marijuana offenses, the majority of whom are overwhelmingly young, poor, and people of color.”

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) represents workers in New York’s medical cannabis industry. RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum and John Durso, President of Local 338 RWDSU weighed in on the new opportunities for working-class New Yorkers. “Today, in passing the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, the New York State legislature took enormous strides toward ending the decades-long war on drugs and its discriminatory impact on people of color,” Appelbaum said. “The legislature listened to calls by workers and advocates to create an industry centered on equity. From the creation of a social equity fund to requiring labor peace for cannabis license holders, this places New York on the forefront of social equity nationally. We thank the legislature for prioritizing the needs of workers and the community and look forward to swift signature into law.”

Durso spoke to how important he believes organized labor will be in helping New Yorkers get the most out of the forthcoming pot industry. “Local 338, New York’s cannabis union, has organized almost 500 workers in the medical cannabis industry in New York, setting standards across the industry that benefit workers and their families,” Durso stated. “Our contracts in the medical cannabis industry have established full-time careers with family-sustaining wages, affordable and quality health care, workplace health and safety standards, funding for retirement, and more.” He added, “It is our priority that the 30,000-60,000 jobs created in our State’s adult-use industry meet the same standard as those in the medical cannabis industry. The MRTA will help to do just that, by ensuring access to opportunity at every level of this brand-new industry, including for the thousands of New Yorkers who will be entering it as workers.”   ❖


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