Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will push for legislation legalizing recreational marijuana for adults in New York state next year.
“Let’s legalize adult use of recreational marijuana once and for all,” Cuomo, a Democrat, said in a Manhattan speech on Dec. 17 focused on the goals of the first 100 days of his third term. The move could bring hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue annually, by state estimates.
Cuomo only recently warmed to the idea of recreational marijuana use in New York. He called marijuana a “gateway” drug as recently as last year. The shift in thought first became apparent in January, when he called for a study into recreational marijuana, saying he wanted to introduce additional facts to the debate. At the time, he was facing Democratic primary challenger Cynthia Nixon, who was to his left on several issues, including support for legalization of marijuana.
New York is among 29 states with a medical marijuana program, which launched under Cuomo’s administration. As of Dec. 11, the state had 2,085 registered practitioners in the medical marijuana program, and 84,066 patients.
Democrats are expected to support the measure. Bills for recreational marijuana use have already been introduced by Democrat members in both the state Assembly and Senate. With the Senate newly under control of the Democrats for the next term, along with Cuomo’s support, a path for recreational marijuana is clearer than in past years.
A Quinnipiac University poll released in May found that 63 percent of New Yorkers support allowing adults to “legally possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use.”
The announcement — just a single line in a 50-minute speech — did not land as a huge surprise, nor did it contain any new specifics on the steps toward legalization. Earlier in December, Cuomo’s office had already promised legislation on recreational adult medical marijuana would arrive by early 2019 in media interviews.
“The goal of this administration is to create a model program for regulated adult-use cannabis — and the best way to do that is to ensure our final proposal captures the views of everyday New Yorkers,” Tyrone Stevens, a Cuomo spokesman, told the New York Post earlier this month.
In July, Cuomo’s state Department of Health released a report that said the positives of taxing and regulating marijuana outweigh the negatives.
The 75-page report found that marijuana could generate taxes for the state annually between $248 million and $678 million, depending on retail prices and the tax rate the state ultimately adopts. New York’s illegal marijuana sales market is worth as much as $3.5 billion, according to the report.
An analysis from New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer in May estimated the potential market for adult recreational marijuana use in the state at roughly $3.1 billion, including about $1.1 billion from New York City alone.
Following the July report, Cuomo appointed 20 members to a working group to draft recreational marijuana legislation. The Department of Health also hosted 17 “listening sessions” throughout the state in September and October to gather opinion on recreational marijuana — including a session at the Radisson New Rochelle.
In the speech, Cuomo presented legalization of recreational marijuana as part of a series of criminal, social and economic justice reform efforts. That agenda includes ending cash bail. The state for too long “had two criminal justice systems: one for the wealthy and the well-off, and one for everyone else,” Cuomo said.
The New York Post reported Dec. 11 that the state’s marijuana working group is reviewing whether to expunge the records of New Yorkers arrested for marijuana possession when they were young — a disproportionate number of whom are black and Latino.
The July Department of Health report said individuals who are black are nearly four times more likely than individuals who are white to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite data showing equal use among racial groups.
A press release from Cuomo’s office following the speech said the legislation “will end the disproportionate criminalization of one race over another by regulating, legalizing and taxing adult use of recreational marijuana.”
Nine states in the U.S. have already legalized recreational marijuana use, including neighbors Vermont and Massachusetts. New Jersey lawmakers are weighing a bill that would bring recreational marijuana to the state.
Asked about Cuomo’s announcement, Westchester County Association President and CEO William Mooney Jr. said the organization is not an expert on the “specific pros and cons of this issue, but (does) recognize the potential short-term revenue benefits of legalizing recreational marijuana.”
Still, the Westchester business group would “prefer to see investments made in areas that would produce broader revenue opportunities to many sectors of the community, such as investment in digital infrastructure which would benefit our health care providers, entrepreneurs, the educational community and the citizens of our community. Cities across the country have done this and have had great revenue benefits.”
The plan for recreational marijuana was one point in a 20-point plan Cuomo presented for the first 100 days of his third term. Other initiatives include: investing $150 billion in infrastructure; a “Green New Deal” to make New York’s electricity carbon neutral by 2040; voting reform that includes same-day registration, early voting and a state holiday for Election Day; and banning bump stocks while raising the waiting period for gun purchases from three days to 1