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State lawmakers formalize deal to legalize recreational marijuana

James MacWilliams prunes a marijuana plant that he

James MacWilliams prunes a marijuana plant that he is growing indoors in Portland, Maine, in 2017. Credit: AP/Robert F. Bukaty

ALBANY — New York lawmakers could vote as soon as Tuesday to legalize recreational use of marijuana.

Rank-and-file legislators and state officials informally had announced an agreement Wednesday to approve marijuana legislation. Just before midnight Saturday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders made it official.

They amended competing versions of marijuana legislation, making a matching version that could be voted on by the full Senate and Assembly on Tuesday.

The bill includes provisions to establish license, sales and tax regulations and create a new regulator for cannabis products. It also would allow cultivation of a small amount of cannabis for personal use. And it would approve the study of new technology to help law enforcement detect marijuana-impaired drivers.

The agreement would represent 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.

"Legalizing adult-use cannabis isn’t just about creating a new market that will provide jobs and benefit the economy — it’s also about justice for long-marginalized communities and ensuring those who’ve been unfairly penalized in the past will now get a chance to benefit," Cuomo said in a statement. "I look forward to signing this legislation into law."

Cuomo announced the agreement with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx).

"There were many important aspects of this legislation that needed to be addressed correctly — especially the racial disparities that have plagued our state's response to marijuana use and distribution as well as ensuring public safety — and I am proud we have reached the finish line," Stewart-Cousins said in a statement.

Fourteen other states have legalized recreational marijuana. Last month, Virginia lawmakers approved similar legislation, though it has a lag before becoming effective.

In New York, officials have said marijuana sales might not take place until 2022 to give the state time to establish the regulatory framework. Under the law, marijuana sales and use would be legal for adults 21 and older.

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 growth 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 community 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 will 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 local law enforcement.

Unlike most states, New York has been attempting to legalize marijuana through legislation rather than by a public referendum. Vermont in 2018 became the first state to do so with legislation — but it still hasn't fully launched its retail market.

Momentum for marijuana legalization became real when Democrats took control of the State Senate in the 2018 election, ending a long run of Republican control of the upper house of the State Legislature. But negotiations between Cuomo and legislators failed in 2019 over disputes about revenue distribution — Cuomo wanted a large share to go to the state's general fund, which he controls.

Talks last year barely started when the COVID-19 pandemic halted them. This year, with Democrats now holding supermajorities in each house capable of overriding a gubernatorial veto, Cuomo shifted his position to allow more of the tax revenue to be earmarked for specific purposes.

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