New York’s 2020 recreational marijuana battle has begun.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new cannabis legislation introduced Tuesday as part of his budget proposal seeks to set rules on everything from taxing marijuana sales to banning alcohol inside weed-smoking lounges and dispensaries.
Yet conspicuously absent from the bill were guidelines for spending specific amounts of cannabis tax revenue on communities hit hardest by decades of racially biased marijuana arrests, a sticking point for civil rights groups, lawmakers and pot legalization supporters.
A stalemate over how to spend the estimated $300 million marijuana tax dollars per year derailed a similar pot legalization push in 2019, which some advocates hope to avoid repeating this time around.
“New York can get legalization right, but it starts by centering reinvestment, equity, and justice within our comprehensive reform,” said Kassandra Frederique, of Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group.
“We need responsible legalization that doesn’t leave out the New Yorkers targeted by marijuana over policing,” she added.
Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, the sponsor of the Senate’s bill to legalize weed, said she wouldn’t support any legislation that didn’t specifically delineate how the money would be reinvested into communities of color.
“We’re not moving forward without the commitment on how the revenue is spent,” she said Thursday.
Cuomo’s bill seeks to tightly control all things cannabis. Key details on plans for keeping the drugs away from kids and enforcing drugged driving laws are expected to be part of the political debate.
The bill would also overhaul the medical marijuana program, such as allowing home-grown medical cannabis and adding autism as an eligible condition for patients. Many measures stemmed from long-standing efforts to improve access and affordability since medical cannabis was legalized in 2016.
How Cuomo plans to tax marijuana
There are three taxes on recreational pot under Cuomo’s bill:
- The cultivation of cannabis would be taxed at the rate of $1 per dry weight gram of cannabis flower, 25 cents per dry weight gram of cannabis trim, and 14 cents per gram of wet cannabis.
- The sale by any entity to a retail dispensary is taxed at a rate of 20% of the invoice price.
- The same sale by any entity to a retail dispensary is taxed at a rate of 2% of the invoice price but collected in trust for and on account of the county or a city with a population of a million or more in which the retail dispensary is located.
The state estimates it could bring in $20 million in the coming fiscal year and $60 million in the following year — ultimately getting to $300 million in annual revenue when the program is fully phased in.
How Cuomo plans to spend marijuana tax money
Some lawmakers and legal weed advocates are urging Cuomo to approve a bill that establishes specific percentages of that money will go towards programs in communities with disproportionately high marijuana arrests.
But Cuomo’s bill allows for undisclosed amounts of the money to be spent on a range of issues. They included operating the recreational pot program, traffic safety, substance abuse, mental health treatment and public health education.
Initiatives to promote social equity in the cannabis industry, such as small business incubators and loan programs, would also get some money, as well as cannabis research.
Much of the authority for spending the money would fall to an executive director of a newly formed Office of Cannabis Management, a state agency overseeing medical and recreational marijuana as well as hemp.
In contrast, Cuomo’s bill would sustain existing state law that says specific amounts of a 7% tax on medical marijuana go to a range of purposes. For example, 45% of that money goes to the communities housing the grow sites and dispensaries.
How New York recreational marijuana would get sold
Dispensaries would only be able to sell one ounce of cannabis per person per day, or up to five grams of cannabis concentrate.
Legal weed sales are also prohibited for anyone under 21 or visibly intoxicated under Cuomo’s bill.
The Office of Cannabis Management would decide how many licenses to grant to retail dispensaries and on-site consumption businesses, the lounges and cafes for smoking, eating and vaping legal weed products.
The pot cafes and lounges would be banned from opening within 500 feet of schools and 200 feet of a church, synagogue or other place of worship.
There is also a measure for caterer’s permits, which allows the sale and service of cannabis products at a function, occasion or event in a hotel, restaurant, club, ballroom or other premises during a fixed time frame.
What rules target youth marijuana use
Cuomo’s bill includes several measures seeking to “prevent predatory marketing and advertising practices targeted toward at-risk populations.”
That includes minors under 21, as well as pregnant or breastfeeding women and groups of people more susceptible to cannabis use disorders.
The restrictions, for instance, ban advertising that “is designed in any way to appeal to children or other minors.” Further, regulators can impose fines and revoke cannabis business licenses for underage sales.
Other measures seeking to protect youths include the plan to use tax revenues for public health education and intervention programs.
Marijuana opponents, including the state Parent Teacher Association and New York State Association of County Health Officials, have suggested legal weed will increase youth use in part by normalizing the drug’s use.
How communities opt out of recreational marijuana
Cuomo’s proposal would leave it to counties and cities of 100,000 or more people to decide whether to opt out of sales of marijuana. It would still be legal to possess it, but it would be illegal to have stores that sell the drug within a county that opts out.
Last year, leaders in six counties indicated they would not allow marijuana sales locally: Columbia, Chemung, Nassau, Putnam, Suffolk and Rockland. Cattaraugus and Oneida leaders also said they were likely to oppose local sales.
Many other counties’ leaders were undecided during last year’s debate, and some lawmakers wanted to give communities of all sizes the right to opt out.
While prohibited in Cuomo’s bill this year from opting out, smaller communities may still pass ordinances or regulations governing the hours of operation and location of recreational marijuana dispensaries.
They just can’t make it “unreasonably impracticable” to operate the business.
On Thursday, Sen. Peter Harckham, D-Yorktown, Westchester County, threw his support behind Krueger’s bill, saying it is time to tax and regulate marijuana — which is legal in neighboring Massachusetts.
Last year, Harckham was among the Democratic holdouts in the Senate who would not back the measure, leading to it not being passed. Now lawmakers are back in Albany until June.
“The marketplace has spoken. It’s time that we tax this and put that money to a social good,” he said.
How New York recreational marijuana use could get you fired
Cuomo’s bill allows an employer to implement policies prohibiting the use or possession of cannabis.
The employers can fire workers for violating the workplace pot policies or failing drug tests that demonstrate they were high while doing work. The drug test has to have a positive result for the active cannabinoid elements found in cannabis which causes impairment, according to the bill.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in New York City prohibited New York City employers from drug-testing job applicants for marijuana use.
The marijuana-screening ban, which excludes jobs in health care, construction and other fields such as child care based on safety concerns, underscored the controversial crossroads of cannabis and workplace reform.
Krueger said Thursday she had yet to fully review Cuomo’s bill, but said it appears to be more in line with the Legislature’s proposal.
The budget is due April 1, but Krueger said it unclear whether a deal could be reached by then.
“If we can’t get it done the right way in the budget, we will revisit it after the budget is over,” she told reporters.
How New York marijuana bill addresses drugged driving
Much of the drugged driving prevention efforts in Cuomo’s bill rely upon boosting the field sobriety testing focused on marijuana.
Dozens of New York police officers have received specialized training to conduct the most rigorous testing, known as drug recognition experts. More would be added under Cuomo’s plan to allow recreational cannabis.
Blood, breath or urine samples could also be taken to determine if a driver is high, but such tests can be inaccurate. Those tests also detect if the driver was high that day or week, rather than if they were high while operating the vehicle in that instance.
A new marijuana breathalyzer that detects motorists smoking pot is hitting the market that some experts say could address the issue.
Other new technology trying to address the issue includes a smartphone app that measures reaction time, decision making, hand-eye coordination, time estimation and balance. It then statistically integrates hundreds of data points into an overall impairment score.
The testing takes about two minutes and is called DRUID (an acronym for DRiving Under the Influence of Drugs), according to Michael Milburn, the founder and creator.