New York Legalizes Cannabis

Following in the footsteps of its neighbor New Jersey and three other states in the 2020 election cycle, New York has now become the 15th state* (see note below) to legalize adult-use (or recreational) marijuana. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law Wednesday morning, saying in a later statement, "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."

Cuomo was not always so onboard with cannabis legalization, using the old "gateway drug" chestnut as recently as just a few years ago, but after being challenged in the 2018 primary by pro-legalization candidate Cynthia Nixon, it seems his position began to evolve. It could also have to do with recent scandals and a desire on Cuomo's part to regain some goodwill, many say. Whatever his true motivation, it is a major victory for longtime advocates like Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and State Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), who sponsored the bill, and of course the good people of New York. New York's prominence in the American consciousness and marketplace could also lead to further legalization throughout the United States, as well as on a federal level, industry insiders say.

New York is now one of the few states with legalization legislation focused specifically on racial and economic equity, addressing the massive problem of the disproportionate numbers of people of color incarcerated on marijuana-related charges, which organizations like the Last Prisoner Project have been trying to change for years. Under the new bill, 40 percent of tax revenue from New York's future legal marijuana sales will go to communities in which Black and Latinx people have been arrested on these charges in disproportionate numbers. New Yorkers convicted of offenses no longer criminalized under the new legislature will have their records automatically expunged, and the law was also designed to help those with past convictions and those currently working in the illicit cannabis trade to participate in the legal industry instead.

Some Republican lawmakers are not enthused about the passage of this bill, with many expressing concern that it will lead to a drastic increase in vehicular accidents due to more people driving under the influence of marijuana. Despite this ungrounded criticism, lack of conclusive evidence shows that this is the case in the other states that have already legalized recreational use of marijuana. Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt had a different criticism, claiming:

"This deal legalizing marijuana is the result of closed-door discussions between leaders of one political party and a governor who is engulfed in scandal. The outcome of these partisan negotiations is a deeply flawed piece of legislation that will hurt the health and safety of New Yorkers."

However, it will only be legal to smoke or vape cannabis in the same places in which it is already legal to smoke tobacco, so there doesn't seem to be any increased health risk there.

There are, of course, numerous provisions to the law that anyone who doesn't believe in total prohibition would find reasonable. The law provides for no more than three ounces of flower for individual use, or 24 grams of concentrates, such as oils or edibles, and it will be banned everywhere tobacco smoking is forbidden, as well as in motor vehicles, further deflating the Republican argument about impaired driving. For those on the more progressive side of the aisle, this can only be seen as a long-delayed victory. “I cannot be more proud to cast my vote to end the failed policies of marijuana prohibition in our state and begin the process of building a fair and inclusive legal market for adult-use cannabis,” Krueger said in the State Capitol. “It has been a long road to get here, but it will be worth the wait.”

*New York should have been the 16th state to legalize recreational marijuana use but the law passed in South Dakota last November is currently being challenged by the state's Supreme Court.

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