As frantic, last-minute negotiations continue in Albany over New York’s adult-use cannabis bill, legislators have simultaneously primed a trio of backup bills to provide incremental improvements in case the legalization bill doesn’t pass.
This year’s regular session is scheduled to end tomorrow.
Reports from Albany this week portray a chaotic scene as lawmakers scramble to pull together enough votes to pass the progressive adult-use legalization bill, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), before the legislative session ends. MRTA will need the support of 32 Democrats to pass the bill (assuming no Republicans vote “aye”).
The current count puts that number at 30 or 31; many of the holdouts represent the New York City suburbs.
Three Half-Measure Bills
Yet even as lawmakers fine-tune the bill (the legislative session may be extended in order to conduct a vote), three additional cannabis bills have been prepped for a potential vote. One expands the state’s meager medical program by eliminating qualifying conditions and legalizing the sale of flower; another regulates the state’s burgeoning hemp and CBD markets; the third, which already faces withering criticism, provides lukewarm decriminalization efforts that opponents argue won’t provide sufficient change for overpoliced minority and underrepresented communities. Proponents of legalization, however, are holding their breath that the backup bills won’t be necessary.
“In Albany you just don’t know how things are going to end up,” said Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx). “If we can’t come to an agreement on adult use, the very least we could [do] is make sure people who suffered under these laws, their records are expunged and they could get the stain off their lives.”
Frenzied Negotiations Continue
When talks between Gov. Cuomo, the Senate, and the Assembly began again in earnest this past weekend—for the first time since legalization failed to pass as part of the state’s budget in April—it quickly became apparent that the parties disagreed on a handful of issues.
One of the most divisive questions concerns how the state would distribute cannabis tax revenue, and who should control that process. One reporter in Albany argued that Gov. Cuomo is only interested in supporting a bill similar to the one he proposed in April, which puts oversight and control in the hands of an Office of Cannabis Management.
That claim was echoed by the activist Shaun King, who took to Twitter to announce that five state legislators independently told him that Cuomo “does NOT want any of the tax revenue to go to the communities most harmed by the War on Drugs.”
When reached for comment, Cuomo’s office declined to respond to the allegation.
Opt-out Clause or Not
Further disagreement arose between legislators who want to allow counties to opt out of sales, versus opt in. As of this writing, the “opt in” language has been removed, according to State Sen. Diane Savino, a sponsor of the bill and longtime proponent of legalization. The senator noted that additional revenue has been appropriated for drug recognition and drug treatment programs.
“We’re going to give [on-the-fence legislators] the opportunity to review those changes,” Savino said. “We believe we’re going to get there.”
Decrim Bill: Weak on Decrim
Of the three backup bills proposed by the legislature, the decriminalization bill (A8420A / S6579A) has encountered the most resistance. The bill provides some expungement measures for past cannabis convictions but maintains public consumption as a misdemeanor.
Opponents of the bill argue that it would be ineffective in cutting down on discriminatory policing measures. Currently, more than 600,000 New Yorkers have a cannabis charge on their records, and black and Latino New Yorkers make up the vast majority of those arrests. An average of 60 New Yorkers are arrested daily on cannabis charges. The Drug Policy Alliance calls the state the “marijuana arrest capital of the world.”
“The watered-down bill … incorporates none of these critical reforms [found in MRTA],” reads a statement from New York Public Defenders, The Legal Aid Society, and other advocacy groups. “All this bill does is adjust the penalties and amounts of marijuana that someone can possess … This means a continuation of the possible months and years of ICE detention and deportation, severed access to essential public benefits, and possible loss of one’s children to foster care.”
In response, advocates of MRTA are begging party leaders to “hold the line” and not settle for the decrim bill.
Other Backup Bills
While the decriminalization bill has been panned, the expanded medical marijuana bill and the hemp regulation bill have not provoked such an outcry.
New York State currently has just over 100,000 medical cannabis patients. Costs are extremely high, dispensaries are sparse, and only limited products like oils and tinctures can be purchased.
The expanded bill, sponsored by Savino and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, would do away with the state’s narrow list of qualifying conditions, legalize flower, increase the number of dispensaries, and allow a patient to buy up to 60 days worth of cannabis, as opposed to 30.
The hemp regulation bill, introduced by Assemblymember Donna Lupardo, would regulate every step of the hemp supply chain in the state. “Ultimately what we want is for New York to have the safest product line in the country, with the best labeling standards, the best testing standards, so that people know what they’re buying,” Lupardo said.
The bill comes in the wake of Congress’ late-2018 passage of the farm bill, which removed federal restrictions on hemp (which is cannabis with less than 0.3% THC).
The hemp industry has since exploded in New York. Earlier this year, the Canadian cannabis giant Canopy Growth chose to open its new 300,000 square foot hemp farm and extraction center in upstate New York. The industry is expected to grow by 20% every year for the next decade.
One More Day
Advocates of legalization are turning up, both in person and online, to persuade on-the-fence senators to support MRTA in the waning hours of the legislative session. Rallies are being planned both in Albany and outside Gov. Cuomo’s Manhattan office on Wednesday.
The final push is accompanied by a surge in last-minute endorsements for legalization, including the state’s Attorney General, Letitia James.
“Before we create a booming business for legal marijuana, we must provide relief to those individuals that have paid much more to society than what was due,” James wrote in an open letter to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Additional endorsements have come from two New York District Attorneys, the New York Daily News and even the New York Times’ editorial board.
New York has a reputation for cramming a lot of insanity into the end of its legislative sessions, and what happens next remains a mystery.
No matter how things shake out, we’re here to keep you posted. Check back with Leafly for updates on New York’s efforts to legalize cannabis—the good, the bad, and the ugly.