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Final hurdle to marijuana legislation? Impaired driving, officials say

Lawmakers in New York are likely to reach

Lawmakers in New York are likely to reach a consensus on legalizing recreational marijuana and act on a stand-alone bill as soon they address lingering concerns about traffic stops and safety. Credit: TNS/Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune

ALBANY — State legislators said Tuesday they were trying to clear the last hurdle on a deal to legalize recreational marijuana.

The final impasse centers not on licensing, sales or taxes, but on impaired driving.

The State Senate floated a proposal to allow for the study of a sort-of "marijuana Breathalyzer" device that would enable police to detect a driver’s marijuana use. If the study shows the device to be accurate, the state would allow local authorities to deploy it.

The proposal reflects a concern by some suburban and upstate legislators about the possible impacts of impaired driving, officials said.

The Assembly — which traditionally is more liberal on criminal laws than the Senate even though both are controlled by Democrats — was considering agreeing to the study. Also, some legislators want impaired driving to remain a misdemeanor and not be downgraded to a violation.

Other lingering details being ironed out regarded serving size and labeling issues for retail products; a clarification on holding more than one license such as processor or distributor; and a formula for distributing the portion of marijuana tax revenue that would go to school funding. An official characterized these as all but done.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said the houses believed they have resolved the issue, but were reviewing final language of a bill. She said they were "really, really close" to signing off.

Rank-and-file Democrats in the Assembly were reviewing the latest proposal in a closed-door conference meeting late Tuesday afternoon, officials said.

"We are discussing it with our members today and hopefully they can come to a deal," Michael Whyland, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), said.

Legislators are striving to reach a deal and pass marijuana legislation outside of a state budget, which they also are negotiating and is due April 1. Keeping issues outside of the budget generally decreases Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s bargaining leverage.

Over the past two years, talks often bogged down over how to allocate the $350 million annual tax revenue that recreational marijuana is projected to generate.

The Senate and Assembly majorities now are both backing a bill by Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) and Assemb. Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) to earmark 50% of marijuana revenue to a "community grants reinvestment fund," 25% to drug treatment and 25% to education.

Cuomo has a separate proposal under which the funds would go to a dozen initiatives, including community banking, drug treatment and literacy services.

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