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State Legislature approves legalizing adult use of marijuana

The New York State Legislature voted Tuesday to

The New York State Legislature voted Tuesday to legalize adult use of marijuana Credit: TNS/Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune

ALBANY — The New York State Legislature voted Tuesday to legalize adult use of marijuana, approving a sweeping bill that will expunge untold numbers of criminal records, allow limited home growth, create a regulator of cannabis products and open one of the largest new pot markets in the nation.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo already has said he will sign the legislation into law. Retail sales of marijuana, though, aren't expected to occur before fall 2022 as the state takes time to build the licensing, taxing and regulatory structure.

The historic vote Tuesday ended years of false starts in Albany for marijuana legalization. The State Senate approved the marijuana measure, 40-23, largely along party lines. Three Democrats voted no — including Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-Great Neck).

About 10:30 p.m. — after six hours of debate — the Assembly followed suit, passing it, 100-49. Assemb. Judy Griffin (D-Rockville Centre) was one of a handful of Democrats to oppose in a vote also largely along party lines.

"Today, we are ending 90 years of prohibition," Assemb. Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo), one of the two main sponsors of the marijuana legislation, said as the State Assembly kicked off voting Tuesday afternoon.

"I think this bill is decades overdue," added Assemb. Anna Kelles (D-Ithaca).

Under the legislation, recreational use of cannabis will be legal for anyone 21 and older. Marijuana will be taxed at 13 cents on the dollar, with money earmarked for schools, drug treatment and grants for communities impacted by years of unequal enforcement of marijuana laws.

But it will take more than a year before any legal sales take place — roughly September 2022, Peoples-Stokes said.

The lag is needed to develop a regulatory system to license and regulate a three-tiered market system legislators envision as similar to alcohol: Producer-distributor-retailer. Officials estimate legalization eventually will create tens of thousands of new jobs and generate $350 million in annual revenue.

Republicans, who account for less than one-third of the Senate and Assembly, made a vocal, if futile, attempt to defeat the legislation, some in dire terms.

"Legalized marijuana will be a disaster for our kids. Mark my words: It will be the ruination of New York State and of our quality of life," Assemb. Keith Brown (R-Northport) said during the Assembly debate.

"My family members have gone through drug addiction and it’s very sad. And it all started with marijuana and then to adderol and then to cocaine," Sen. Mario Mattera (R-St. James) said.

Democrats countered that the idea of marijuana as a gateway drug has been debunked, that enforcement has disproportionately targeted Black and Hispanic people and the state should stop tying up courts with marijuana arrests.

"What this means is we won’t be using the police to pick up our kids. We won’t be clogging up our courts with these low-level offenses," said Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), the primary Senate sponsor of the legislation, during the debate. "And we can use our criminal justice resources to go after actual criminals. … It’s ridiculous that (marijuana) is 40% of the arrests and we are wasting lives and we are wasting our criminal justice funds."

In a moment of levity, Krueger told of first trying marijuana at age 14, quitting by 17 and then trying it once more at 19 at a midnight showing of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

Coming into 2021, 14 other states had legalized marijuana. Earlier this year, Virginia’s legislature had voted to join them, though Gov. Ralph Northam still hasn’t signed or vetoed the measure. New York would become the latest — joining neighbors Vermont, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

In New York, the legislation represents a breakthrough for lawmakers who have been trying to legalize marijuana for several years but often became bogged down over how to allocate the projected $350 million in annual tax revenue from sales.

To reach the agreement, Cuomo agreed with legislators to earmark a significant chunk of the tax revenue for communities disproportionately impacted by unequal enforcement of marijuana laws.

Under the legislation, lawmakers would create a new Office of Cannabis Management, led by a five-member board. It would be contained within the State Liquor Authority and authorized to issue different licenses for cultivation, processing and distributing marijuana, as well as for dispensaries and "social consumption sites."

Similar to alcohol regulation, a "three-tiered market" of marijuana growers, wholesalers and retailers would be established with limited overlap.

Localities could not prohibit residents from consuming or growing marijuana. But they could block or regulate retail sales and delivery, as well as consumption sites.

Taxes could be steep on retail sales: 13 cents on the dollar. Of that, nine would go to the state, one to the county and three to the municipality.

Home growing would be allowed. Each person could have up to three mature plants and three immature plants, and a maximum of 12 total plants per household.

Possession of up to three ounces of cannabis outside the home would be legal. Additionally, a person who has a past marijuana conviction that now would be legal could get that record expunged.

State tax revenue would initially cover administrative costs, with the remaining profit divided with 40% allocated to education funding, 20% to drug treatment and 40% to a "community grants reinvestment fund" to help communities unfairly impacted by historical unequal enforcement of drug laws.

The legislation also would mean significant changes for medical marijuana. Under the agreement, more medical conditions will be covered and patients could obtain a 60-day supply instead of the current 30 days. Home cultivation of medical marijuana also would be permitted.

Use of cannabis by drivers will remain prohibited. Further, the state will conduct a study of emerging technologies intended to detect "cannabis-impaired driving." If deemed accurate, such devices could be made optional for law local enforcement.

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