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Marijuana resolutions move forward in City Council, but Albany bill hits roadblock

Pot advocates’ high hopes face possible downer

March 26, 2019 Mary Frost
A City Council committee approved resolutions to legalize and tax the sale of marijuana and use the income for reparations, but they will have a limited effect on what happens in Albany, where cannabis legislation has hit a roadblock. AP photo by Richard Vogel

A City Council committee approved on Tuesday a basket of resolutions to legalize and tax the sale of marijuana in New York State — and use the income for minority reparations.

Even if the resolutions pass the full Council, however, they are non-binding and will have a limited effect on what happens in Albany, where cannabis legislation has hit a roadblock.

Despite pledging in his State of the State speech in January to legalize weed, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week that a bill legalizing recreational marijuana (and spending its revenue) would not be included in New York State’s next budget, due March 31.

Squabbles over how the revenue will be spent and concerns from police and medical professionals about marijuana’s negative effects have left the legislation dangling.

The state Sheriffs’ Association says legalizing marijuana will make people less safe, and presidents of the medical societies of four northeast corridor states said they had “serious concerns about the lack of scientific evidence that supports recreational marijuana use by adults and young adults.” Some county executives have already said they plan to opt out, even if weed is legalized.

The New York proposal would create a licensing program for growers, distributors and retailers, and impose a 20 percent state tax and a 2 percent local tax. Officials estimate about $300 million per year would come to New York.

Cuomo had proposed using this tax money, along with congestion pricing and an internet sales tax, to help fund transit repairs and improvements.

Many councilmembers, however, want the money to fund investment in areas hardest hit by the war on drugs. Brooklyn Councilmember Rafael Espinal on Friday criticized Cuomo’s plan to shift the money to mass transit.

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“The legalization of marijuana is long overdue — but if we’re going to get it done, as I hope happens this year, we need to get it right,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle. “Proposing to funnel tax revenues from legalization to mass transit, instead of investing them in the communities that were targeted by a racist enforcement regime, is a slap in the face to the people whose lives were ruined by a drug-related arrest …”

He said that the people who suffered least during the war on drugs “now stand poised to capitalize on and profit from legal marijuana.” Legislators and Cuomo should “keep in mind neighborhoods like East New York and Brownsville, which still have not recovered from the devastation of drug criminalization,” Espinal added.

‘Cannabis equity’ program

Brooklyn officials Stephen Levin, Laurie Cumbo and Carlos Menchaca, and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams (a former councilmember) are among those pushing for a “cannabis equity” program to benefit communities of color.

Levin’s resolutions approved by the Committee on Public Safety Tuesday would do the following:

  • Remove penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana
  • Establish 21 as the minimum legal age
  • Allow for home cultivation of up to six marijuana plants
  • Empower the New York State Liquor Authority to grant licenses
  • Direct a portion of the state tax revenue collected to re-entry programs, substance abuse programs, job training programs in low-income, high-unemployment communities and more.

Williams’ resolution would add possession of marijuana in the 4th and 5th degrees to its list of “overlooked offenses” at NYCHA. Currently, people convicted of marijuana use can lose their apartments.

Legalization goes further than decriminalization, which gets the support of many law enforcement officials, including Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez.

A City Council source said that even though the resolutions are not binding, the package does show how the city wants to approach legalization and sends a message to legislators in Albany about what their priorities should be when it comes to crafting a legalization policy.

The resolutions will next go to the full Council for a vote, possibly as soon as Thursday.

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