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What could legal weed mean for NY?

What could legal weed mean for NY?

Quietly filed and awaiting review in the New York Senate Finance Committee sits S3040A, known more commonly as the “Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act” (MRTA), a bill that aims to make recreational marijuana legal for adults in New York State.

It’s nothing new, of course; similar versions of the MRTA have made their way to and subsequently died in committee nearly every year since 2013, when Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, first introduced the bill. The bill would allow for retail sale, possession of  two and a quarter pounds of cannabis and the ability to grow six plants.

What is different now is Gov. Andrew Cuomo is paying attention and taking the steps to fully understand what legal cannabis could mean for the state of New York. On Jan. 16, Cuomo announced his interest in authorizing a study into the pros and cons of legalizing statewide; from the law enforcement end to tax revenue.

It’s a move that also comes at a time when New York is becoming increasingly surrounded by marijuana-legal states. In December 2016, Massachusetts legalized, with plans for retail stores to open this summer. More recently, on Jan. 22, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signed a legalization bill into law, making Vermont the first state to permit recreational marijuana use via the legislative process rather than through a ballot initiative.

That makes pot legal in nine states, including Colorado, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Alaska and Maine, as well as Washington D.C.

From the perspective of recreational users, it’s a no-brainer that legalization is the path the state should go down. Mary Kruger is executive director of the Rochester chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

“To be honest, people are going to smoke whether it’s legal or not. New York State is just losing money,” Kruger said. “Why would they want to lose money? People are getting the product tax-free. That’s New York State’s worst nightmare.”

Rochester’s NORML chapter is pushing for regulation for a slew of reasons. It cites quality control, safety of products, cutting down on nonviolent inmates and, most decisively, the potential tax revenue to the state as huge benefits with hardly any downside.

“Find me another industry saying ‘hey, tax us and regulate us,'” said former California grower Jeremi Miller. “There aren’t any—we are really the only one.”

While Cuomo, who has long opposed  recreational marijuana, is now showing more leniency. But he’s not the first in the state to study the potential impact of legalization. In 2013, when the MRTA bill first hit the Senate, New York City comptroller John Liu published a report on the fiscal impact of legalization. The report estimates the value of New York City’s marijuana trade at $1.65 billion and projected a bump up to $1.7 billion if legalized and regulated. Revenue from sales tax and an additional excise tax would total $331 million for the city annually and $63 million for the state.

“I’ve seen it myself when I was the manager of a collective,” Miller said. “Just the money alone off of our collective, we were close to half a million dollars per year in taxes. When you think about the money that could be generated per capita, it’s a really substantial amount.”

Colorado, whose retail cannabis market began in 2014, has managed to pull in an impressive amount of money. Between the program’s start and November 2017, state sales of cannabis totaled $4.4 billion. In 2017 alone, licenses, taxes and fees brought in $247.4 million in revenue to the state. Both sales and revenue have grown consistently, year by year, since legalization.

However, not everyone is thrilled by the concept. Matt Nelligan, a spokesman for Republican state Sen. Rich Funke, pointed to some of the safety concerns of recreational marijuana.

“There’s been a lot of criticism of the Colorado and California programs, in regard to the edibles, candies you can get and whether or not those are targeted at younger people,” Nelligan said. “Let’s be honest, we go after tobacco a lot, rightfully so, for going after kids and using advertisements that target kids. So, if you’re selling Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups with pot, that could be something considered targeted at kids.”

But according to Colorado’s 2015 Healthy Kids Survey, a year following legalization, 21 percent of Colorado high school kids had smoked marijuana in the previous 30 days; a rise of just 1 percent since pre-legalization in 2013. Twenty-one  percent of teenagers in Monroe County also used marijuana at least once in the previous 30 days in 2017, according to the county’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey. And while a 2016 report from the Journal of American Medical Association found the number of child hospitalizations due to cannabis in Colorado rose from 1.2 per 100,000 two years before legalization to 2.3 per 100,000 two years  following legalization, there is, to date, no documented, objectively proven case of death by cannabis overdose anywhere in the world.

But New York has a track record of cautiousness when it comes to pot. While a medical marijuana state, it also has the most restrictive laws of nearly any state in the country. No cannabis buds or galaxy of cookies, brownies, candies and drinks can be found here. Rather, only extract liquids, vaporizer oil and tablets are authorized for 41,685 patients.

U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, an early supporter of the medical program, said she’s in support of expanding that program, but did not comment on whether she’d support full legalization at this time.

“I’ve always been a strong advocate for medical marijuana, but I haven’t really evolved much past that,” Slaughter said. “I resented the idea of not having that available for people in pain, and I’m glad New York is finally come around to that.”

But for Miller and Kruger, a limited medical program is not enough. Rather, not legalizing is a stance against New York’s better economic interest.

One locally based conglomerate has made a move into the cannabis market. In late October, Constellation Brands purchased a 9.9 percent stake in one of Canada’s largest cannabis companies; Smith Falls, Ontario’s Canopy Growth Corp. In Canada overall, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to legalize cannabis by July, adding another legal neighbor to New York.

“I must see a homeless person 10 times a day asking me for some change, and I help when I can, but if we regulate this, we can provide the shelters they need, we can fill in the educational gaps, we can provide food,” Miller said. “There’s no reason why we have all of the issues we do and we can’t find a solution. This is the solution, point blank.”

Miller went on to argue that legislators right now may not be fully briefed on the issue. It’s a sentiment Nelligan didn’t disagree with. He said Funke is ready to hear how the study plays out.

“I think that data is going to be really useful for us, to look at how Vermont and Massachusetts do, and I think that will help the senator make a real, informed decision,” Nelligan said.

At the end of the day, legalizing any formerly illicit substance will take more than promises of economic gain. Legislators will need ironclad evidence of marijuana’s potential. Miller and Kruger argue the facts already exist and merely need to be presented in cogent form for the legislators.

“The reality of the situation is you always have to look for alternate methods you can use to get revenue,” Nelligan said. “We’ve done casinos; there’s conversations going on right now in the Senate and Assembly looking at sports betting and whether it can be legalized. Last year we did fantasy sports,” and allowed Lyft and Uber upstate. “Those were done for economic reasons, on both sides, jobs and revenue,” he said, adding that the same thing can be done with  recreational marijuana.

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