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Cuomo shifts on pot revenue, but some say details are too vague

Marijuana buds are shown at Huron View Provisioning

Marijuana buds are shown at Huron View Provisioning in Ann Arbor, Mich., Jan. 28. Credit: AP/Paul Sancya

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday moved toward progressives’ view on how to legalize recreational marijuana in New York, saying he would earmark some of the tax proceeds for job placement, mental health and housing services.

But community groups stopped short of embracing it. They said the governor’s latest proposal, while a welcomed shift, is still not enough. And some said the process for how his plan would work in practical terms is still too vague.

Cuomo, a Democrat, and the Democratic-controlled Legislature have come close to legalizing marijuana in the past two years but have hung up on how the tax revenue would be spent.

The governor generally had wanted more of the money to go the state’s general fund, which he controls. Legislators said a significant chunk should go to communities hardest hit by unequal enforcement of marijuana laws.

Cuomo in January said he would back creation of a $100 million "social equity fund" and on Tuesday he moved toward advocates’ view by fleshing his idea out more. He said the funds would go to a dozen initiatives, including community banking, drug treatment and literacy services.

"Our comprehensive approach to legalizing and regulating the adult-use cannabis market provides the opportunity to generate much-needed revenue, but it also enables us to directly support the communities most impacted by the war on drugs by creating equity and jobs at every level, in every community in our great state," Cuomo said in a statement.

Cuomo estimates marijuana taxes could generate $350 million annually for the state. Advocates are backing a bill by Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) and Assemb. Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) that would channel 50% of tax revenue to community groups.

Additionally, the governor proposed decreasing criminal penalties for illegal drug sales: Reducing the charge of criminal sale of marijuana by someone younger than 21 to a misdemeanor and changing the class of felony for other sales charges.

He also proposed to allow delivery of legal marijuana products, while giving local governments the ability to opt out.

Some advocates applauded the governor’s "shift."

"There’s no question this shift comes in response to powerful organizing for marijuana justice across the state and in the Legislature," Melissa Moore, New York director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. But she said the proposal falls short of the legislators’ bill.

She said Cuomo’s proposal offers no chance for "home grow" marijuana and leaves the possibility of someone being charged with illicit possession if, say, he or she couldn’t produce some sort of receipt. And besides a smaller cut of tax revenue, the proposal requires groups to apply to the Cuomo administration for any marijuana-funded grants, she said.

Krueger said she was glad the governor showed a "willingness to adjust his approach." But she said legislators’ couldn’t pass judgment until the governor puts his proposal in the form of a bill for lawmakers to consider.

"The legislative language is where the rubber meets the road and none has been shared yet, so I can’t make an assessment of this most recent proposal," Krueger said in a statement.

Lawmakers are trying to reach a deal on marijuana and include it in a state budget agreement, which is due April 1.

"This is a budget proposal that will be further negotiated with the Legislature," Cuomo senior aide Rich Azzopardi said. "If there are additional concerns or issues raised, we’ll certainly review them."

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