New York lawmakers couldn’t gather enough votes to pass the Marijuana Taxation and Regulation Act (MTRA) last month, leaving New Yorkers without legal weed for the time being. The New York State Legislature had a Democratic majority in both houses, but still couldn’t pass the progressive recreational cannabis bill. MTRA had gained steady support after a year, but quickly fell by the wayside due to a lack of legislative time to discuss the issue and political stalemates.
Cuomo Pulls Away From Legal Cannabis
Many marijuana advocates and policymakers pin part of the blame on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Lawmakers remarked that Cuomo could have included a provision in his 2019 budget as part of a comprehensive package. His direct support for legal cannabis would have affected votes in the legislature.
While Cuomo passed the blame to the legislature, some senators noted that Cuomo could have done more. Liz Krueger, one of the lawmakers behind MTRA, told New York Daily News, “We realized that the governor had pulled away. For whatever reason, he decided he wasn’t ready to try to get it done in the budget.”
Another reason that legal weed didn’t pass both houses of the state legislature was a delay in discussing the issue. MTRA is the latest effort from Liz Krueger, who has had embarked on a long-time mission to legalize cannabis in New York. Along with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Krueger crafted a bill that included progressive social equity among other adult-use regulations.
Unfortunately, the bill was not included in Governor Cuomo’s annual budget resolution in March. This left it up to lawmakers to pass the bill before the June 2019 deadline. Both sides of the aisles struggled to compromise on issues such as regulations on driving under the influence and tax revenue distribution. Under the bill, taxes would go to public education, drug treatment, and job training programs, especially in minority communities.
One day after the MTRA failed to pass the state legislature, lawmakers compromised on a bill to reform cannabis decriminalization for possession of small amounts of marijuana and expungement in New York. New York decriminalized possession of 25 grams of marijuana in 1977. Unfortunately, the law didn’t apply to those with a previous criminal record. A loophole also allowed police to stop and frisk individuals and charge them with possession if the cops found marijuana in “public view.”
New York’s new decriminalization policy states that anyone caught with up to one ounce of weed can receive a fine of up to $50 (down from $100), even if they have a criminal record. Possession of one to two ounces could warrant a fine of up to $200. The bill would also remove the loophole that allowed police to arrest people for cannabis in “public view.”
The new bill also includes automatic expungement of up to 600,000 low-level cannabis convictions. In 2017, 16,924 people were arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana and smoking in public. 86 percent of those arrests were racial minorities.
Cannabis convictions have prevented people of color from benefiting from the cannabis industry’s financial success. According to Marijuana Business Daily, only one-fifth of cannabis businesses are owned by racial minorities and 4.3 percent are black. According to the new rules, law enforcement will be able to dismiss possession charges if the individual keeps a clean record for six months.
The Future of Legal Pot in New York
New York, like the majority of states, doesn’t offer citizen ballot initiatives. Instead, the New York State Legislature requires a majority vote in both houses to add a constitutional amendment to the ballot. Many argue that passing recreational marijuana laws in 2020 seems impossible, especially with the presidential race as the major concern. Cuomo could include the bill in the 2020 annual budget to avoid lawmaker indecision.
According to a poll by the Siena Research Institute, a 55 percent majority of New Yorkers support legalizing cannabis. The poll also found that 61 percent of Democrats favored legalization while 55 percent of Republicans were against it. New York City, however, has taken active steps toward decriminalizing cannabis. New York City Council also passed a bill that doesn’t allow employers or probation programs to test for THC.
New Yorkers Flock to Massachusetts
After a devastating defeat for cannabis advocates, New Yorkers have increasingly visited nearby Massachusetts to buy legal weed. Some dispensaries have hour-long wait times and half of their sales coming from New Yorkers. Lack of access to cannabis has had unintended consequences, especially to minority communities. Although illegal, New Yorkers transport cannabis across state lines. Pretty soon, however, New York could have cannabis access closer to home.
New York missed its chance to become the 12th state to legalize cannabis, but there’s still plenty of public support behind a bill that not only legalizes cannabis, but also provides reparations to those most affected by the war on drugs. New York lawmakers will continue to fight for safe access to cannabis and they need all the support they can get.
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