The Cuomo administration has amended its marijuana legalization proposals to include new efforts pertaining to regulating the drug market, the taxation of suppliers and how to prod illicit marijuana suppliers to join a legalized system.
“We’ve looked at lessons learned,” said Norman Birenbaum, the state’s director of cannabis programs, in an interview after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last week unveiled his second bid in two years to legalize the growth, sales and use of marijuana in New York.
Those lessons include what’s been happening in states that have legalized marijuana – including various problems with everything from taxation and regulation to road safety – as well as input from state lawmakers and border states with New York that are eyeing marijuana legalization as well.
But there is one point on which the Cuomo administration has not moved: where to direct $300 million in projected marijuana excise tax revenues, an amount legalization opponents say is overly rosy.
Like most other tax revenues, Cuomo wants the money to flow into the state’s general fund with decisions about spending those proceeds being made on an annual basis as part of the budget.
Lawmakers, though, have in mind everything from specially earmarked accounts for drug treatment and prevention efforts, to law enforcement efforts to get high drivers off the roads, to steering money to a variety of programs in poorer neighborhoods that were disproportionately targeted for marijuana arrests over the years.
“I’m optimistic we can get this done in 2020,” said Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat and sponsor of the Senate’s legalization legislation.
But she said if the effort can’t be done “the right way” as part of upcoming state budget talks, as Cuomo prefers the matter to be settled, it can be done before lawmakers end the session in early June.
While lawmakers have acknowledged Cuomo’s new budget plan includes some movement on marijuana legalization efforts, they note his failure to firmly side with them on the revenue distribution question, which could be a deal breaker.
“We’re not moving forward unless we can get the commitment on how the revenue needs to be spent,” Krueger said at the Capitol last week as she appeared with Westchester Democratic Sen. Pete Harckham, who recently moved from the “undecided” column of lawmakers to supportive of Krueger’s measure because of the revenues that would be dedicated to drug treatment, prevention and education efforts.
Cuomo did move on one important area: how the program would be regulated. Last year, he proposed creating a single marijuana czar, who he would appoint with vast powers over setting potency levels of marijuana that could be sold in the state, where the cannabis plants can be grown and who gets the licenses to distribute and sell on a retail basis.
In his new budget plan, Cuomo is proposing a five-member board to set an overall marijuana regulatory scheme and to oversee a new state Office of Cannabis Management. The board, however, would be all Cuomo appointees; such a move is largely seen as a negotiating tactic for Cuomo in dealing with lawmakers in upcoming budget talks.
The governor’s plan also would have a deputy director in the new office charged with handling social equity type issues that many minority lawmakers say is needed to address past law enforcement efforts pertaining to marijuana possession in black and Latino communities. Also, a chief medical officer would be appointed to handle various issues, including the state’s much-criticized existing medical marijuana program that eligible patients say is too costly and unwieldy to navigate.
In releasing his 2020 budget plan last week, Cuomo vowed that this is the year for marijuana legalization. His plan, his budget states, “establishes a regulated adult-use cannabis program that protects public health, provides consumer protection, ensures public safety, addresses social justice concerns and invests tax revenue.”