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New York Just Passed Legal Weed. Now What?

“Unlike any other state in America, this legislation is intentional about equity.... Equity is not a second thought; it’s the first one and it needs to be, because the people who paid the price for this war on drugs have lost so much.”

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By Jurassic Blueberries , licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

New York became the latest U.S. state to legalize recreational weed, after a bill passed both houses of the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed it into law on Wednesday. 

It’s the 15th state (as well as Washington, D.C.) to legalize recreational cannabis, with its new law setting up a regulatory framework for buying and selling legal weed, eliminating criminal penalties for possession under three ounces, and automatically expunging the criminal records of people convicted of cannabis-related crimes that are no longer illegal. It also focuses heavily on “equity” and reinvesting in communities of color that have been devastated by the war on drugs and criminalization of marijuana. 

“Unlike any other state in America, this legislation is intentional about equity,” said State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes. “Equity is not a second thought; it’s the first one and it needs to be, because the people who paid the price for this war on drugs have lost so much.”

So what does the new law say, and more importantly, what does it mean for you?

When is this all happening?

Some of the bill’s impacts are immediate. 

As of Wednesday, it’s legal for anyone over 21 to possess up to three ounces of weed in New York, as well as up to 24 grams of concentrated cannabis, such as oils. It’s also now legal to smoke and otherwise use marijuana in public, anywhere smoking tobacco is allowed. 

As for the near future, the new law expands the expungement of cannabis-related offenses beyond a previous law passed in 2019, and anyone convicted of an offense now made legal by the new law will see that record wiped clean. 

Other changes will take a bit longer. The bill sets up a state agency, the Office of Cannabis Management, as well as the Cannabis Control Board, to regulate the industry, but dispensaries aren’t expected to open for at least 18 months and possibly up to two years, according to Peoples-Stokes. Local governments have until the end of this year to opt out of allowing dispensaries or “pot cafes” in their jurisdictions, according to Bloombergand will be able to set tighter restrictions on indoor weed usage than the state law allows.

New Yorkers will also eventually be able to use legal weed delivery services, and grow up to six mature and six immature cannabis plants in their own home. 

How New York intends to make its weed law “equitable” 

Aside from expunging some prior marijuana criminal convictions, which disproportionately affected Black and Latino New Yorkers, the new law goes farther than other states have in attempting to use the new law to make up for impacts that criminalizing weed had on communities of color.   

Of the tax revenue generated from cannabis sales in New York, 40 percent will go to a new Community Grants Reinvestment Fund targeted at communities “disproportionately affected by past federal and state drug policies.” The other 60 percent of tax revenue will go toward funding for education and drug treatment. 

“This law comprehensively addresses the harms of overcriminalization and establishes one of the most ambitious marijuana legalization programs in the nation,” Drug Policy Alliance state director Melissa Moore told the New York Times

That tax money will likely be nothing to sneeze at, either—once in full effect, the new law is projected to facilitate billions in sales and generate $350 million in tax revenue per year, according to estimates from the governor’s office. The newly legal industry is also expected to create at least 30,000 new jobs. 

Additionally, the law sets a goal of 50 percent of business licenses to be given to “equity applicants,” such as women, people of color or “distressed farmers or service-disabled veterans,” according to Cuomo’s office. It’ll also create loans, grants, and “incubator programs” to help participants in the industry “from disproportionately impacted communities” as well as small farmers,  according to Krueger and Peoples-Stokes. 

Why is this happening now?

The new law was a long time in the making. The first version of the bill was introduced way back in 2013

Gov. Cuomo had long been opposed to legalizing weed, going so far as to call it a “gateway drug” in 2017. But after his 2018 Democratic primary opponent Cynthia Nixon called for legalization, Cuomo accelerated the results of a state health department study, which eventually supported legalizing recreational weed. 

After Democrats took control of the state Legislature in 2018, Cuomo finally announced his support for legal weed in December of that year. But efforts have stalled over the past few years as a result of disputes over how the revenue would be used, according to the Times. Cuomo said in his 2020 State of the State address that legalization was a top priority, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought an abrupt end to the prospect of legalizing weed last year.  

For Cuomo, signing the new law marks a political win at a time when his administration is plagued by several scandals: his office’s alleged  cover-up of COVID-19 nursing home deaths, allegations of sexual harassment and abuse by at least 10 women, and alleged preferential  COVID testing treatment for Cuomo’s family members

Dozens of New York lawmakers, including Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, have called on Cuomo to resign over the harassment allegations, which he has flatly denied. He has so far refused to resign. 

Analysts at the financial services firm BTIG said earlier this month that Cuomo’s political and legal troubles meant the governor was “more motivated now to pass a highly popular piece of legislation that could have the added benefit of shifting public attention” away from the scandals. 

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