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New York Moves Toward Legalizing Recreational Marijuana

For New York state, 2018 has brought optimism and some fresh perspective for lawmakers debating the legal status of marijuana. In his Wednesday address regarding the 2018 Executive Budget Plan, Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) delivered remarks on “revenue raisers” – new taxes and fees that can potentially infuse ~$1B into the New York economy. Among several proposals put forth to accomplish this, the Governor made it apparent that he is open to the idea of legalizing recreational use of marijuana as a major revenue generator.

Specifically, Mr. Cuomo called for a state-funded study, to be led by the Department of Health, that explores the financial, medical and social impact marijuana legalization will have both on the state and its neighbors. The call for this study comes one week after legislators met in Albany for a hearing that discussed the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA). The MRTA is a bill that, if implemented, would tax and regulate the distribution and production of marijuana for adults aged 21 and over in a manner similar to alcohol.

The hearing provided New York legislators a glimpse into the broad and wide-ranging benefits of marijuana reform. Those who took part in articulating their position on the issue included civil rights & criminal justice leaders, medical doctors, scientists, policymakers and law enforcement officials and other experts from states recognizing recreational and legal use of marijuana.

The two events seem to have mild support from those in the State Assembly. Senator Liz Krueger, a sponsor of the MRTA bill, said:

I am pleased that Governor Cuomo is proposing funding for a study of legalizing adult use of marijuana.  Addressing our current outdated marijuana laws is a necessary part of any criminal justice reform agenda, and I look forward to sharing what I have learned in developing the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act as to how to create a more just approach to marijuana regulation.”

Even those who are more on the fence about the issue of legalization still support the fact-gathering initiative of Cuomo’s proposed study. While I have never supported recreational use of marijuana, I think the governor’s proposal to study how it may impact our state both socially and economically is important,” said Senator Ortt.  He added “I have no issue with doing our own independent study, which we can then use as basis for any future policy. The more facts that we have available to us for proposing legislation, the more successful that legislation will be.”

To date, only patients with one of the few qualifying medical conditions can use marijuana via the Compassionate Care Act of 2014. These patients must be certified by their physician and carry a registry identification card that will confirm consumption for medicinal use only.  While there is no current legal status for recreational marijuana use, the MRTA in all likelihood will be the last major hurdle that needs to be cleared before New York can dissolve laws that prohibit its use.

Though surprising to some, the Governor’s thawing on this issue is no accident. A recent poll conducted by Emerson College found that 62% of registered votes in New York state support the legalization of marijuana. These figures are up by more than 10% from a similar poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in 2012.

Similarly, neighboring states are taking the lead in pursuing legislative agendas to legalizing marijuana on the East Coast. New Jersey’s newly elected Governor, Phil Murphy (D), promised to support a bill that legalizes marijuana in the Garden State within his first 100 days in office. Similar legislative moves were already voted on in Vermont’s Senate and New Hampshire House of Representatives, respectively.

Despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ (R) recent reversal of the Cole Memo, an Obama-era rule that loosened the federal government’s grip on enforcement of a state’s marijuana policy, much progress has been made on establishing the groundwork for east coast states to follow suit with their west coast counterparts. For New York especially, acceptance is slowly coming into the fold and the state-funded study will be the next big test for a roadmap to legalization.

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