In a historic legislative session last month, New York lawmakers passed a long-bottled flood of progressive bills covering everything from early voting to rent control.
But legalized recreational marijuana failed to make the cut, despite support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and strenuous efforts by Democrats in the state’s two houses. Despite the failure, two local lawmakers say they believe New York has made significant progress on the issue, with bills that extend decriminalization of marijuana possession and lay the groundwork for small- and mid-sized farmers to get in on the booming industrial hemp sector.
“We got to decriminalization, we just didn’t get to commercialization,” said Assemblyman Kevin Cahill (D-Kingston), a longtime supporter of marijuana legalization. “We made a lot of progress and in the end it may not matter very much that we didn’t get there in this legislative session.”
Marijuana reform advocates came into 2019 with high hopes. A new Democratic majority in the state Senate appeared poised to push through a whole host of progressive legislation that had long been blocked by Republican control of the body. Cuomo, who had previously spoken against legalization and described pot as a “gateway drug,” signaled a change of heart. In his State of the State address in January, Cuomo said he wanted to see legalization of recreational use marijuana pass as part of the state’s budget process. Many lawmakers were looking towards Massachusetts, where the first recreational-use pot shops opened late last year, drawing a flood of New Yorkers — and their tax dollars — across the border. In New Jersey, lawmakers appeared poised to pass their own recreational use law raising the prospect of millions more in New York weed money flowing into another state’s coffers.
But that early momentum appeared to fade after New Jersey’s legalization effort fell apart at the last minute. New York lawmakers debated how the law would work, how much control to give municipalities over the decision to allow marijuana sales and, critically, how to allocate the anticipated windfall in weed-tax dollars. Many downstate lawmakers wanted to see that revenue rolled into poor communities of color that have borne the brunt of the half-century old War on Drugs in the form of incarceration, heavy-handed policing and diminished prospects for thousands of people with low-level marijuana convictions. The legislative session ended without an agreement satisfactory to both houses and the governor’s office, and with the proposed Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) unvoted upon.
“The real reason this didn’t pass was because the parties couldn’t get together and figure out how to re-compensate communities that have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition,” said Cahill.
Cahill said he believed lawmakers would build on this year’s negotiations, potentially speeding up implementation of legal recreational pot sometime next year. Cahill said that the MRTA was drafted with a long phase-in period to allow the construction of a regulatory structure from scratch. With much of the heavy lifting on those issues already agreed upon, Cahill said, next year’s version of marijuana legalization could pass with a much shorter time frame for implementation.
“We can work out all of the details that we didn’t have complete agreement on, details we were willing to discuss because the iron was hot,” said Cahill. “So this may not result in a delay for the general public so much as a delay in all of the legislative folderol.”
Cahill and state Sen. Jen Metzger (D-Rosendale) both pointed to progress on marijuana issues in the legislative session, particularly the expansion of a 1970s-era decriminalization law that makes simple possession of marijuana a civil offense similar to a traffic ticket, rather than a crime. The new legislation raises limit on non-criminal possession of marijuana from 25 to 50 grams. The law also eliminates an exception that made possession of any amount of marijuana a misdemeanor if the substance was “burning or in public view.” Civil liberties advocates have long complained that the public-view exception allowed cops to make arrests from small amounts of marijuana when the holder exposed their stash to public view by turning out their pockets on orders from a police officer. Another section of the law creates a process for people to have their convictions on marijuana charges expunged.
Ulster County Public Defender Andrew Kossover said the reforms were a good first step towards righting some of the wrongs of marijuana prohibition. But, he added that prohibition would continue to negatively impact the lives of thousands of New Yorkers as long as it remained in effect. Kossover added that while “pure marijuana” arrests had declined over the years, police frequently claimed to smell marijuana as a pretext to search vehicles and people leading to arrests on other charges.
“I can tell you that many a client says, ‘The officer claimed they smelled marijuana, they searched the car, the searched us, but none of us smoke pot,’” said Kossover.
Hemp’s prospects brighten
Metzger said she was excited about new laws creating regulatory framework for the production and distribution on industrial hemp and the non-intoxicating hemp extract CBD that passed just as the 2019 legislative session was about to end. Federal law allows the production of CBD and industrial hemp, but until now New York lacked a regulatory framework for the industry. Metzger said she and fellow members of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee were able to maneuver the hemp provisions to a vote separately, once it became clear that the larger legalization bill would not pass. The bill creates licensing, labeling and production rules that she said would allow hemp production in New York to grow significantly beyond the current estimated 100,000 acres devoted to its cultivation.
Critically, Metzger said, the bill mandates that all hemp sold in New York be grown in New York, something she said would provide a lifeline for small and mid-sized farmers, rather than simply create a new market for “Big Marijuana.”
“We needed these licensing and other regulations in place to allow the industry to really move forward and flourish,” said Metzger.