February 19, 2021
New York State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes believes 2021 is the year that the Empire State will get marijuana legalization done.
"It is my hope and desire that New York will legalize adult-use of cannabis this current session in 2021," the assemblywoman told Cheddar.
The lead sponsor of the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) in the New York State Assembly, Stokes has been working alongside her State Senate colleague Liz Krueger on an equity-focused approach to cannabis legalization for years. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo joined the push more recently, pledging each year since 2019 to legalize cannabis through the state budget. Despite support for legalization from both state lawmakers and the governor, disagreements over equity and allocation of cannabis tax revenue have consistently derailed past efforts.
But this year, unlike years past, New York faces a crushing budget shortfall due to the financial devastation of the coronavirus. Cuomo's right hand woman, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, told Cheddar the $300 million in tax revenue the adult-use marijuana industry is projected to generate could finally be the motivation lawmakers need to get legalization passed.
"We need the money," she told Cheddar. "People who were reluctant before didn't join us in promoting this. Now, all of a sudden, you're saying, 'Well, I guess because of COVID, with a $15 billion budget deficit, we need to find money anywhere we can.'"
Cuomo's current version of the bill includes for the first time provisions to allocate tax revenue specifically toward creating a more equitable and inclusive cannabis industry, which would seem to address some of the grievances lawmakers had with previous versions. The governor's proposal allocates $100 million across the first four years of the program and $50 million every year thereafter toward a cannabis social equity fund. But for Peoples-Stokes, that isn't enough.
"That's the big difference. He wants to allocate some dollars out of the general fund, and my legislation says that there should be in the statute a percentage of the resources that go directly to the communities that have been negatively impacted," she said.
Peoples-Stokes' bill, the MRTA, allocates percentages of revenue toward creating an equitable industry and reinvesting in communities harmed by cannabis criminalization from previous federal and state drug policies. After funding reasonable costs incurred by running the program, researching the effects of legal cannabis, and ensuring police can maintain safe roads, the bill allocates 25 percent of the remaining revenue for the state lottery fund, 25 percent for drug treatment and public education programs, and 50 percent for reinvesting into communities harmed by cannabis-related arrests and convictions. Although Peoples-Stokes isn't particularly satisfied with Cuomo's plan, she's indicated she is willing to compromise.
"The legislation calls for 50 percent reinvestment in communities that have been harmed, but that's the starting point. But until we get to have the conversation, we can't negotiate by ourselves. We have to negotiate jointly with [Cuomo]. We haven't gotten to that point yet," she said.
Cuomo also indicated he is willing to compromise. During a press conference on Monday, he said lawmakers are "making progress" on a bill all camps can agree on, and that he plans to send an amended version to lawmakers in hopes of striking an agreement by the April 1 budget deadline, which is just six weeks away.
"I believe if we don't have it done by the budget, we're not going to get it done, and I think it would be a failing if we don't get it done this year, and I think that would be a mistake," he said during the conference.
Although lawmakers likely still have much to work out, cannabis industry insiders agree that New York will pass legalization this year.
"While the prior two attempts in New York failed, legislative changes around social equity, coupled with COVID-19 budget deficits, and impending legalization in New Jersey will likely get the bill across the finish line, in our view," Eric Assaraf of Cowen Washington Research Group wrote in a note.
Jeff Schultz, lawyer at cannabis-focused law firm Feuerstein Kulick, also said he believes cannabis legalization in New York is imminent.
"New York is going to legalize in six weeks," he said. "I think culturally, it's going to be a big deal. It's New York — this is the financial capital world. And I think it's going to change things culturally because it's going to normalize weed in New York City."