Luis Ferré-Sadurní, New York Times, March 31, 2021
After years of stalled attempts, New York State has legalized the use of recreational marijuana, enacting a robust program that will reinvest millions of dollars of tax revenues from cannabis in minority communities ravaged by the decades-long war on drugs.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the cannabis legislation on Wednesday, a day after the State Legislature passed the bill following hours of debate among lawmakers in Albany.
New York became the 15th state to legalize the recreational use of cannabis, positioning itself to quickly become one of the largest markets of legal cannabis in the nation and one of the few states where legalization is directly tied to economic and racial equity.
Previous attempts to legalize marijuana were stymied over disagreements on how the tax revenue from sales would be distributed. Democratic lawmakers, especially those who are nonwhite, insisted that a large portion of the money be earmarked for communities where Black and Latino people have been arrested on marijuana charges in disproportionate numbers; the governor wanted to retain more control over how the money was spent.
The lawmakers prevailed. Forty percent of the tax revenue from pot sales will be steered to those communities, and people convicted of marijuana-related offenses that are no longer criminalized will have their records automatically expunged. The law also seeks to allow people with past convictions and those involved in the illicit cannabis market to participate in the new legal market.
“Unlike any other state in America, this legislation is intentional about equity,” Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, the Democratic majority leader in the Assembly who sponsored the bill, said on the floor of the lower chamber. “Equity is not a second thought, it’s the first one, and it needs to be, because the people who paid the price for this war on drugs have lost so much.”
Individuals are now allowed to possess up to three ounces of cannabis for recreational purposes or 24 grams of concentrated forms of the drug, such as oils.
New Yorkers are permitted to smoke cannabis in public wherever smoking tobacco is allowed, though localities and a new state agency could create regulations to more strictly control smoking cannabis in public. Smoking cannabis, however, is not permitted in schools, workplaces or inside a car. In New York City, it will be banned in parks, beaches, boardwalks, pedestrian plazas and playgrounds, where tobacco smoking is banned. Smoking is generally permitted on sidewalks in the city.
The recreational market is expected to eventually generate $350 million in yearly tax revenue and billions of dollars in annual sales. New businesses and thousands of new jobs are on tap for the cultivation, distribution and sale of the drug.
“This is a historic day in New York, one that rights the wrongs of the past by putting an end to harsh prison sentences, embraces an industry that will grow the Empire State’s economy, and prioritizes marginalized communities so those that have suffered the most will be the first to reap the benefits,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement.
Republican lawmakers opposed the legislation, echoing safety and health concerns from parent teacher associations and law enforcement groups, such as a potential influx of people driving under the influence of marijuana.
Supporters said the new law has guardrails to prevent a few companies from dominating the market and to make sure that wealthy white investors do not reap most of the benefits, which critics say is what has happened in other states.
Half of business licenses, for example, are supposed to be issued to “social equity applicants.” That includes people from communities with high rates of marijuana enforcement, as well as businesses owned by women and minorities, distressed farmers and disabled veterans. Priority will also be given to applicants who have a marijuana-related conviction, or a close relative with such a conviction.