ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo made waves last week in promising a swift path to legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use but the ambitious plan presents a number of sticky situations, according to local and national experts and officials.
In a speech at Ellis Island, the third-term Democrat promised a progressive agenda for his first 100 days including being a national leader on legalizing recreational marijuana.
Cuomo said the move would bring “justice and new economic opportunity” for impoverished communities “that paid too high a price for too long.”
The endorsement represents a decided shift in the governor’s previous position in which he often labeled cannabis a “gateway drug.” Cuomo said he has been informed by the policies of neighboring states such as New Jersey and Massachusetts, who are also advancing toward legal marijuana.
State officials also have claimed marijuana could assist in mitigating the harms of opioid use disorder — an affliction that has ravaged public health in Oswego County.
On July 12, New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker announced that treatment for opioid use disorder was an accepted associated condition that qualifies for prescribing medical marijuana but local experts aren’t so sure.
Dr. Michael S. Nupuf, medical director of the only Opioid Treatment Program in Oswego County housed at Farnham Family Services, challenged the decree at the time, which raises questions about further permissiveness of the drug in 2019.
“The information that Dr. Zucker provided in the announcement adding medical marijuana as a qualifying condition for opiate use disorder is really questionable,” Nupuf said. “There’s not scientific evidence to recommend that. They want to do something and I applaud that.”
Farnham Executive Director Eric Bresee added that his organization wanted to see more research “for its effectiveness,” adding that scientific evidence exists on the other drugs they prescribe.
“We can show you lots of research about methadone, Suboxone [buprenorphine], and Vivitrol [naltrexone],” Bresee said.
Prevention advocates in the county also point to the negative health effects of recreational drug use for youth, not to mention steep federal penalties for those found guilty by the feds. A youth survey of public school students released last year by the Oswego County Prevention Coalition found specifically that the perceived risk of marijuana use for health and legal reasons decreased as children grow older.
Tyler Ahart, Oswego County Prevention Coalition Coordinator said new policy out of Albany might make his organization’s job more difficult.
“The legalization of marijuana will make the Oswego County Prevention Coalition’s efforts to keep our youth drug free a greater challenge,” Ahart said. “We will continue to combat adolescent substance abuse and manipulative marketing practices that target youth using community resources and local support. “
Despite legalization efforts in several states, a federal ban on marijuana sale, cultivation and possession remains in place.
Assemblyman Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, said his “instinct was to vote no” on legislation that would legalize recreational marijuana for adults but noted that such a wide-reaching policy decision shouldn’t be rushed.
“There’s a lot that goes into this and I would need to see the bill — I don’t see why this has to be done within a hundred days,” Barclay said. “It’s something that should be well thought-out and done with consideration.”
Barclay supported a 2014 bill allowing for the New York introduction of medical marijuana but said there’s a stark difference between cannabis prescribed by a physician and recreational marijuana.
“This is a whole different can of worms,” Barclay said. “My instinct is to say no — if we had a vote tomorrow, I’d vote no — but at the very least we need to get some more input from a health and financial aspect.”
Almost exactly one year ago, Cuomo commissioned a Department of Health study on marijuana that found “no insurmountable obstacles to regulation.”
The 75-page report, released over the summer, detailed how the benefits of legalization far outweighed shortcomings and risks for the state — including probable revenue generation of between $248.1 million and $677.7 million in the first year alone.
While the prospect of raising two-thirds of a billion dollars in revenue may be tantalizing, Barclay said there were a myriad of issues to be cleared up before he would feel comfortable supporting any legislation.
“Putting aside whatever health effects there are,” Barclay said, “What do we do with the money?”
How to handle revenue earned through a marijuana-based business has been a vexing problem for states that have passed legalization measures.
Because marijuana is federally classified as a schedule I prohibited substance, banks are strongly discouraged from cooperating with state-licensed cannabis businesses, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
“No industry can operate safely, transparently, or effectively without access to banks or other financial institutions and it is self-evident that this industry will remain severely hampered without better access to credit and financing,” said NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano in an interview with The Palladium-Times.
Lawmakers in California last year attempted to establish a public bank for the cannabis industry but those efforts now seem destined to fall short after a troubling report by state regulators. Despite the perils of handling dirty money (at least in the eyes of the feds), Armentano said nearly 500 banks are “actively banking” with marijuana-related businesses.
Real change, however, must come from Washington.
“Ultimately, the responsibility is upon Congress — not upon the US Treasury Department or upon state lawmakers — to change federal policy so that these growing number of state-compliant businesses, and their consumers, may operate in a manner that is similar to other legal commercial entities,” Armentano said.
U.S. Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, began his freshman term in congress last week and said through a spokesperson that Congress “should do what is necessary to ensure any entity operating legally under state law can do so safely and transparently, without retribution.”
While changes to federal marijuana laws were not taken up by the Republican-controlled 115th Congress, with Democrats in the majority in the House of Representatives, there could be significantly more movement in the 116th Congress.
Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, recently appointed to chair the powerful House Rules Committee, has indicated a willingness to permit debate and votes on marijuana-related amendments.
“Unlike my predecessor, I’m not going to block amendments for marijuana,” he told the Boston Globe in December. “Citizens are passing ballot initiatives, legislatures are passing laws, and we need to respect that. Federal laws and statutes are way behind.”
Outgoing Rules Committee Chair Pete Sessions, R-Texas, had blocked votes on dozens of marijuana-related amendments and in a statement, NORML called Sessions was “the single greatest impediment… to the passage of common-sense, voter-supported marijuana reform measures.”
If New York does indeed legalize recreational adult marijuana, what might that look like?
A successful model may be found in Colorado, which legalized retail marijuana through a constitutional amendment in 2012 following a decades-long push that began with medical marijuana legalization in 2000.
The Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division licenses all commercial businesses, all individuals who work in those businesses and criminal and compliance investigators that enforce regulations on marijuana-related businesses, according to Shannon Gray of the Colorado Department of Revenue.
“Business operators must be licensed at the state level and local level where they reside and local jurisdictions can also add on their own taxes,” Gray said.
Since retail marijuana sales began in Jan. 2014, nearly $6 billion in transactions have been processed in Colorado, including $1.5 billion for the 2017 calendar year.
Tax revenue from marijuana sold in Colorado goes to a number of different “buckets,” Gray said, including a “marijuana tax cash fund,” state public school fund and school capital construction grant program.
State Senator Patty Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said in a December interview that the possibility of legalizing recreational marijuana was troubling in its implications and “gave her pause.”
Requests for comment from U.S. Rep. John Katko were not returned.