ALBANY — State lawmakers on Tuesday debated and were set to vote on changes to New York’s laws surrounding recreational marijuana, but one influential Republican official isn’t sold on loosening pot restrictions.
Legislative leaders in the state Senate plan began floor discussions at around 3 p.m. Tuesday, with a vote expected later on in the evening. The Assembly was expected to take up the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act on Tuesday after the Senate. The bill, supported by Democrats who tightly control both houses, is expected to pass. New York would become the 16th state to legalize marijuana sales to adults. New York would become the third state where lawmakers, rather than voters, have approved legalization.
Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, said while “many are going to celebrate,” the state has “only created new problems” while not solving any.
“Democrats are going to claim victory, but they ignore the inherent dangers associated with their decision,” Barclay said. “Legalizing marijuana guarantees young people will have greater access to a drug they shouldn’t be anywhere near. The minute this becomes readily available, the safety risks in our communities and our roadways increase exponentially.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and top Democrats in the Assembly and Senate announced Saturday they reached an agreement to expand the state’s existing medical marijuana program, allow individual New Yorkers to grow six plants for personal consumption and set up a licensing and taxation system for recreational sales.
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 and where to direct revenues. Democrats, who now wield a veto-proof majority in the state Legislature, have made passing it a priority this year. Legalization could eventually bring the state about $350 million annually, according to Cuomo's administration.
The prospect of tax revenue is tantalizing to some, which Barclay said is penny wise but pound foolish.
“Forced COVID lockdowns drove New York to the edge of an economic cliff, and advocates for legalization seized the opportunity to push marijuana as a financial windfall,” he said. “While this may eventually improve the state’s bottom line, it will come at the expense of public health and safety.”
New York would set a 9 percent sales tax on cannabis, plus an additional 4 percent tax split between the county and local government. Taxes are also based on the level of THC, marijuana’s active ingredient, ranging from 0.5 cents per milligram for flower to 3 cents per milligram for edibles.
The legislation would take effect immediately if passed, though 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.
Past efforts to legalize recreational use have been hurt by a lack of support from suburban Democrats, disagreements over how to distribute marijuana sales tax revenue and questions over how to address drivers suspected of driving high.
It also has run into opposition from law enforcement, school and community advocates, who warn legalization would further strain a health care system already overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic and send mixed messages to young people.
“We are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the serious crisis of youth vaping and the continuing opioid epidemic, this harmful legislation is counterintuitive,” said an open letter signed by the Medical Society of the State of NY, New York State Parent Teacher Association, New York Sheriff’s Association and several other organizations March 11.
Barclay expressed similar concerns.
“Over the past year, we have seen our friends, families and neighbors struggle in more ways than one: reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, fighting health issues associated with smoking and the ongoing battle of the opioid epidemic,” Barclay said. “This legislation is harmful and counterintuitive to combating addiction and decades-long anti-drug efforts.”
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.
And 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.
The bill also sets aside revenues to cover the costs of everything from regulating marijuana, to substance abuse prevention.
State police could also get funding to hire and train more so-called “drug recognition experts.”
But there’s no evidence that drug recognition experts can tell whether someone is high or not, according to R. Lorraine Collins, a psychologist and professor of community health and health behavior at the University at Buffalo. Collins was appointed to Cuomo’s 2018 working group tasked with drafting cannabis regulations.
“I think it’s very important that we approach that challenge using science and research and not wishes or unsubstantiated claims,” Collins said.
Collins pointed to a 2020 report from the American Civil Liberties Union that found that Blacks are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession compared to Whites, based on FBI statistics.
“Every New Yorker should be concerned about how these laws will be implemented or how those ways of examining drivers will be implemented in different communities,” Collins said. “It’s not likely to be equal.”
The bill allows cities, towns and villages to opt out of allowing adult-use cannabis retail dispensaries or on-site consumption licenses by passing a local law by Dec. 31, 2021 or nine months after the effective date of the legislation. They cannot opt out of legalization.