Cuomo details marijuana legalization plan

Measure would benefit communities affected by war on drugs
Vireo Health of New York grows cannabis plants at its production facility in Johnstown.
Vireo Health of New York grows cannabis plants at its production facility in Johnstown.

ALBANY — Gov. Cuomo’s marijuana proposal goes far beyond legalizing and taxing pot use by adults, additionally creating a social justice framework to benefit poor and minority communities that were affected by the decades-long war on drugs.

Details came with Cuomo’s budget presentation and State of the State Address on Tuesday. Legalized hits from the bong fit right in with a sweeping, ambitious progressive agenda touching on everything from abortion rights to gun control to shellfish habitat.

Watching with concern is New York’s young medical marijuana industry, which has made a considerable investment in infrastructure and realized little or no profit from the relatively small number of patients using medical marijuana in the three years it has been legal here.

The worry is that widespread availability of dried marijuana — less expensive and more desired than the extracts that medical marijuana producers are limited to — will put the medical producers out of business if they are excluded from the recreational market.

The New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association said in a statement Tuesday that it looks forward to “playing an active role in building the adult-use program. We’ve collectively invested more than $250 million in recent years to develop a state-of-the-art infrastructure that’s paved the way for the safest and most-highly regulated medical marijuana program in the country. We are hopeful the adult-use legislation allows the existing medical providers to participate fully, as that is the only way to keep prices low enough to ensure patients continue to receive the care they need and to protect against an illicit market.”

The NYMCIA includes Vireo Health of New York, which operates a Fulton County production facility and an Albany County dispensary and is eager to expand into the recreational market.

Cuomo’s proposals will be subject to intense lobbying and legislative negotiations, and at least parts of it may change. Here are some details from his presentation Tuesday and from a state briefing book on his budget plan:

  • Stringent quality control measures will be required.
  • Excessive commercialization of marijuana will be curtailed and public education campaigns will be mounted.
  • Unlicensed production/distribution, out-of-state trafficking, underage distribution and driving while stoned all will be targeted by law enforcement.
  • Counties and “large” cities can opt out and ban recreational marijuana businesses within their borders.
  • Cuomo verbally predicted $300 million a year in tax revenue, which apparently is a distant goal: his budget book projects $83 million in fiscal year in fiscal year 2021 and $0 in fiscal 2020.
  • There will be three taxes: $1 per gram of dried cannabis flower or 25 cents per gram of dry cannabis trim; 20 percent on wholesale supplier-retailer transactions; and 2 percent on supplier-retailer transactions to be held for the county in which the retailer is located. 
  • The state will create a comprehensive regulatory framework for all three sectors of the cannabis industry — industrial hemp, medical marijuana extracts and recreational marijuana — under central control of a new state Office of Cannabis Management.
  • The recreational market will consist of three tiers, similar to alcohol: Production, distribution and retail. Producers would be barred from owning retail sites.
  • Legalization should create economic opportunity for communities and people who have been disproportionately impacted by enforcement of marijuana laws.
  • The legal marijuana industry should empower poor communities rather than enrich big corporations.
  • Producers and retailers will be limited in number so as to encourage craft growers and cooperatives, to ensure meaningful and sustained participation by communities harmed by the war on drugs, and to not saturate the market.
  • There will be a restorative justice initiative to correct past harms to these communities, and reinvestment in these places will be encouraged.
  • The state will provide social-equity licensing opportunities, technical assistance, mentorship and access to capital.
  • Legalization will create “good union jobs.”
  • Records of minor marijuana convictions will be wiped clean.

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