ALBANY, N.Y. — New York would legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, launch programs to help communities that bore the brunt of the national and state drug war and eventually allow marijuana sales to people over the age of 21 under a sweeping bill that lawmakers passed Tuesday.
The bill now goes to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has ten days to approve or veto once it lands on his desk — otherwise, the bill becomes law. He has said he will sign it.
The Senate voted 40-23 in favor and the Assembly approved it 100-49.
Criminal justice reform groups and advocates for minority communities where pot was policed hardest have hailed the state's bill as particularly sweeping: New York would set a target of ensuring 50% of marijuana licenses go to underrepresented communities, and join a handful of states to automatically expunge past marijuana-related convictions. The legislation also provide protections for people from being discriminated for marijuana use in public housing, schools and colleges and the workplace.
"We have literally destroyed the lives of multiple thousands of people," Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes said. "That's what's good about this legislation…. We're going to turn around the lives of some of those people and help them to be able to take care of themselves, their families and their communities."
Lawmakers estimate the legislation will eventually bring in $300 million a year to cover the state's cost of regulating and enforcing the program, with the remainder divided among schools, drug treatment and prevention programs and a fund for investing in job skills, adult education and other services in targeted communities.
"I'm driving this because I want people to be free from incarceration for a drug that people in their communities use every day," Stokes said.
New York, which has failed to legalize marijuana for years despite Democratic control of the Legislature and governor's office, would become at least the 16th state to legalize marijuana sales to adults. New York would become the third state where lawmakers, rather than voters, have approved legalization.
Observers say New York's move, which follows legalization in neighboring Massachusetts and New Jersey, builds momentum for legalization efforts nationwide. Lawmakers in New Mexico returned for a special session Tuesday to tackle recreational marijuana, while Democratic lawmakers in Virginia are negotiating over a push to move up legalization to this summer.
"New York being the second-largest now-legal cannabis market in the country is going to put ever more pressure on others and encouragement for others to follow their lead," said Adam Goers, a senior vice president of Columbia Care, which sells medical marijuana in New York and medical and recreational-use pot in several other states.
New York would set a 9% sales tax on cannabis, plus an additional 4% tax split between the county and local government. It would also impose an additional tax based on the level of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, ranging from 0.5 cents per milligram for flower to 3 cents per milligram for edibles.
Several parts of the legislation would take effect immediately: New Yorkers could legally possess less than 3 ounces of marijuana outside the home.
New York would start automatically expunging records of people with past convictions for marijuana-related offenses that would no longer be criminalized.
And once the bill becomes law, law enforcement in New York won't be able to arrest or prosecute anyone for possession under 3 ounces. A police officer could still use the odor of burnt cannabis as a reason to suspect a driver is intoxicated, but the officer couldn't use that smell alone as justification for searching a car for contraband.
Meanwhile, sales wouldn't start until New York sets up regulations and a proposed cannabis board. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes has estimated it could take 18 months to two years for sales to start.
Consumers could then get marijuana deliveries, or visit new social lounges where they could consume marijuana.
Individual New Yorkers will eventually be able to grow six plants for personal consumption under the legislation — but they'll have to wait until 18 months after the first regulated adult-use sale. Medical marijuana patients could start growing sooner: six months after the bill passes.
The legislation expands the list of health conditions that qualify someone for medical marijuana, but hopeful New Yorkers with newly qualifying conditions will have to wait for the state to issue new regulations first.
It has taken years for the state's lawmakers to come to a consensus on how to legalize recreational marijuana amid debates over impaired driving, where to direct revenues and whether legalization would make it easier for children to access marijuana.
Democrats, who now wield a veto-proof majority in the state Legislature, say the legislation addresses concerns from Republicans, law enforcement groups and some suburban Democrats.
Local governments could opt-out of retail sales. Other states, including Vermont, have required municipalities to opt-in to allow retail operations.
New York officials plan to launch an education and prevention campaign aimed at reducing the risk of cannabis among school-aged children, and schools could get grants for anti-vaping and drug prevention and awareness programs.
A new state cannabis board will prohibit advertising toward children, and cannabis retail stores and marijuana lounges couldn't be located within hundreds of feet of a school or house or worship.
The state will also launch a study due by Dec. 31, 2022, that examines the extent that cannabis impairs driving, and whether it depends on factors like time and metabolism. Bill sponsor Sen. Liz Krueger said there isn't a clear link between marijuana legalization and traffic accidents.
Still, Republicans and a handful of Democrats who oppose legalization said Tuesday they remain concerned that the bill will tie law enforcement's hands and send the message to children that the drug is OK.
Assemblymember Mike Lawler, of Rockland County, said he's skeptical that marijuana sales will bring in nearly as much revenue as Cuomo's administration projects: "We talk about revenue, other states have fallen far short of projections."
Republican Rep. John Lemondes Jr., a retired Army colonel who runs a farm not far from Syracuse, expressed concerns about workplace accidents. "Are we really sure we want to do this?" he asked, adding: "As a parent, my answer is emphatically no."
Democratic Rep. Kwame Mamdani of Queens said that even though some people insist that marijuana can lead people to become burdens to society: "Smoking marijuana can also lead to becoming an elected official."
The legislation sets a goal of awarding 50% of recreational pot business licenses for "social and economic equity applicants," including minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses.
To Andrew Farrior, a Black entrepreneur who plans to apply for a license, "the intention and the verbiage are great." But he's also wary.
Other states have made similar promises, but such intentions can get lost as legislation evolves into the nitty-gritty of regulation and actually issuing licenses, noted Farrior, the managing partner of Digital Venture Partners, which works on cannabis branding and produces a video series highlighting people of color in the cannabis industry. He wants to see more specifics on how New York's plans for business incubators and other assistance for newcomers will actually provide them with access to financing.
"It's exciting to see it, but history has shown us that it's probably not going to be executed how they are selling it to us right now," Farrior said.