New York Legislators Expect Recreational Marijuana Deal In 2021

Jan 4, 2021

New York is moving closer to legalizing marijuana for adult, recreational use. State lawmakers think they might be able to strike a deal on the issue in 2021 but questions still remain on what exactly that will look like.

Marijuana could finally become legal in New York, and the chances of that happening are higher than ever. Not only is the state strapped for cash, but most states bordering New York have now either legalized the drug or are headed in that direction. Both Vermont and Massachusetts already have legal weed and New Jersey is set to create its own program in the coming months. That's left New York behind on the issue.

“And right now all we're doing is pushing New Yorkers across state borders, where they spend their money in other states to buy the products that we could be producing and selling right here in New York,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, one of several Democrats who've led the charge for legalizing marijuana in New York in recent years.

But that's easier said than done. For one, lawmakers don't want to create a system that still drives people to buy the drug illegally.

“We need to make sure we have a successful set of programs. And that means we need to make sure we are not pricing the legal safe products at a higher cost than the existing illegal unknown products, because then people won't move,” Krueger said.

And for that New York actually finds itself and an advantage on marijuana.

More than a dozen states have already legalized the drug for adult use. And that's given New York plenty of time to see what's worked and what hasn't.

“We don't need to make the same mistakes that other states have made and they have made a lot of mistakes,” said State Senator Diane Savino, another Democrat involved in discussions on legalization.

A top issue is what the state should do with the tax revenue from the marijuana industry, which is expected to be about $300 million each year. Some Democrats want part of those funds to be reinvested in communities of color where the state's drug laws have been enforced at higher rates. But others want to be more flexible with the money. Governor Andrew Cuomo wants it to be available for however the state needs it at the time, rather than being earmarked for a specific purpose. And he said the financial incentive for that strategy is greater this year. New York is facing a budget deficit north of $10 billion because of the coronavirus.

“I think this year it is ripe. Because the state is going to be desperate for funding — even with Biden, even with a stimulus,” Cuomo said.

New York already decriminalized small amounts of marijuana a few years ago, holding less than two ounces of the drug is no longer a crime, but you will receive a fine and some don't want to see New York go any further. Dr. Kevin Sabet is a former drug policy adviser under President Barack Obama.

“This is commercialized by an industry not very different than like big tobacco and big alcohol, you know, run roughshod over public health and marijuana wouldn't be any different,” Sabet said.

But it's worth noting that the marijuana industry is already operating in New York just in a different way. Medical marijuana has been legal here for the last five years, with 10 companies now licensed to sell in New York. But the state's medical marijuana program hasn't really grown in that time. And leaders from the industry are hoping that changes as the state considers full legalization.

Ngiste Abebe is director of public policy for Columbia Care, a medical marijuana company, and president of the New York Medical Cannabis Association.

“So the New York Medical Cannabis program is definitely one of the more restrictive ones in the country,” Abebe said.

Broadly speaking, medical marijuana companies want the state to allow more people to use the drug and make it easier to get and that's something that's supported as well by Senator Savino, who was a key architect of the state's medical marijuana program five years ago.

“If a doctor in his or her estimation believes that a patient could be benefited by the use of any particular drug that is legal in the state of New York to treat whatever that condition is. We shouldn't get in their way. We should allow them to make that determination for their patients. So that's what we're recommending,” Savino said.