New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says recreational cannabis will be legalized in the state in 2021. “This will raise revenue and end the failed prohibition of this product that has left so many communities of color over-policed and over-incarcerated,” the Governor wrote in a tweet.
We will legalize adult-use recreational cannabis, joining 15 states that have already done so.
This will raise revenue and end the failed prohibition of this product that has left so many communities of color over-policed and over-incarcerated.#SOTS2021
If this was the year for legalization, it would make New York the fifteenth state to make the product available for recreational use.
New York's Initial Exploration of Legalization in 2018
Governor Cuomo has been pushing for legal marijuana for years now. In 2018, the New York Department of Health joined with several other agencies to study cannabis and the thought of legalization. The Impact Assessment found the positives far outweighed the negatives when it came to the potential for legal adult-use marijuana. The study also concluded that cannabis prohibition over the past century hasn’t achieved the goals for public health and safety it was intended to promote. Instead, it “led to unjust arrests and convictions particularly in communities of color.” The report included strong language and numerous arguments in favor of legalization. “Legalizing marijuana could remove research restrictions in NYS, which will enable the State to add to the knowledge of both the benefits and risks. In addition, NYS would be one of the largest regulated marijuana markets. As such, there is potential for substantial tax revenue in NYS, which can be used to help support program initiatives in areas such as public health, education, transportation, research, law enforcement and workforce development. Tax revenues can also support health care and employment. Finally, legalization of marijuana will address an important social justice issue by reducing disproportionate criminalization and incarceration of certain racial and ethnic minority communities.” Despite those findings, recreational marijuana did not become accessible in New York that year.
Pandemic and Detail Delays
In 2019, legislative leaders supported the idea but dropped it when they couldn’t agree on specifics. That had a lot to do with arguments over where the tax revenue the product would generate should be allocated. Governor Andrew Cuomo figured he’d revisit the topic in the next year’s legislative agenda. In January 2020, Governor Cuomo vowed to legalize recreational marijuana. He hoped to use the money to aid with a $6 billion budget gap and believed a legalization bill could double as a way to reform the criminal justice system. But the coronavirus put a halt to those plans, as it did all things. Once again, arguments over who should be allowed to sell and distribute the product and how the profits should be used caused the effort to fall apart. Now, Governor Cuomo says 2021 is the year for cannabis. In his State of the State address, he explained plans to form the Office of Cannabis Management, which would regulate all forms of cannabis, including recreational, medical, and hemp. The state estimates legalization would bring in $300 million of tax revenue at time where its budget could use the boost.
Addressing Prohibitions Impact on Minority Communities
The Governor also hopes to use legalization to address the impact of the War on Drugs on communities of color. Cuomo’s office is promising that the licensing strategy it develops will specifically focus on areas disproportionately impacted by that false war. The state says it’ll help entrepreneurs in those communities get started up. In a media address, Governor Cuomo wrote, "Despite the many challenges New York has faced amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also created a number of opportunities to correct longstanding wrongs and build New York back better than ever before. Not only will legalizing and regulating the adult-use cannabis market provide the opportunity to generate much-needed revenue, but it also allows us to directly support the individuals and communities that have been most harmed by decades of cannabis prohibition." Normally, legalization happens in the ballot box, with Initiatives launched months in advance for constitutional amendments to make cannabis legal and lay out laws for its regulation. Governor Cuomo, even after two years of failure, still feels legalization should happen through the state’s budget laws. That method was intended to streamline the process. Of course, that didn’t quite work out. Legislators also tried to do things the normal way. New York Senator Liz Krueger sponsored Senate Bill S1527C, which would enact the Marijuana Regulation and Tax Act. It would allow for people 21 and older to grow and use marijuana. It would also redefine what constitutes marijuana, remove references to the drug in forfeitures, and change laws that once deemed use of the product punishable by fines or jail time. It also details an excise tax, business permits, and the creation of the New York State cannabis revenue fund, along with funds for public education, drug treatment, and community reinvestment grants. To date, the bill is still sitting in committee.
Data's Impact on Cuomo's Decision
The word that Governor Cuomo would try to sneak legislation in a third time started up in November 2020. But the goal seems lofty. The Citizens’ Budget Commission released an analysis called “Getting into the Weeds about Potential Recreational Marijuana Revenues,” where researchers said it typically takes to or three years before government benefits from new tax revenues. The report concludes, “Other states’ experiences clearly demonstrate that it takes time for legalized marijuana tax revenues to be realized, but early implementor states now generate significant and consistent revenues. If New York legalizes and taxes the recreational adult use of marijuana, it should be pragmatic in estimating revenues, transparent on the sources and uses of those revenues, and not dedicate the revenues except to administration and perhaps programs related to the consequence of use.” Still, Governor Cuomo announced during the State of the State that he’s ramping up his effort toward legalization. He says this new push builds on the work the state has been doing over the past few years, pushing for legalization. “The proposal reflects national standards and emerging best practices to promote responsible use, limiting the sale of cannabis products to adults 21 and over and establishing stringent quality and safety controls including strict regulation of the packaging, labeling, advertising, and testing of all cannabis products. Cannabis regulation also offers the opportunity to invest in research and direct resources to communities that have been most impacted by cannabis prohibition.”