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Legal marijuana cultivation and sales are all but a sure thing in New York in the state's new political environment.

Not only are both houses of the Legislature firmly in the hands of Democrats after their November 2018 electoral sweep, but New York's top elected official also has had a change of heart.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on state lawmakers on Dec. 16, 2018, to legalize recreational marijuana use “once and for all” during their 2019 session. The three-term governor's shift was a remarkable turnaround for a politician who termed marijuana a “gateway drug” as recently as 2018.

Many details remain to be worked out, some of which are likely to generate battles among stakeholders. When the Legislature convenes in late January 2019, some of the cannabis topics they'll address include:

  • Who will be permitted to work in the cannabis industry.
  • How favorable the regulatory framework will be to small businesses.
  • Where the tax revenues will go.

Brad Usher, chief of staff for longtime Democratic state Sen. Liz Krueger, a legalization advocate, said the governor's endorsement means things will move fast after many years of “talking about it theoretically.”

“We spent all this time trying to figure out what legalization would look like and what we would like to put in [the bill] with plenty of time to go back and make changes,” Usher told Weedmaps News. “Now, we have three more months to learn, and that's it.”

Already lining up to lay claims to the new income — estimated at $3.1 billion annually according to a report from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer are groups seeking a fix for the beleaguered New York City subway system. Pushing just as vigorously against that idea are representatives of the individuals and communities harmed by decades of harsh drug enforcement laws and mass incarceration.

These entities gathered in Albany, New York's capital, on Dec. 11-12, 2018, a week before Cuomo's announcement, at a two-day conference entitled, “Marijuana: Justice, Equity, Reinvestment,” sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance. Dozens of groups and cannabis entrepreneurs called for “reparative justice” measures, including suspension of prison terms, expungement of criminal records, admission to the legal industry of those with prior marijuana-related convictions, and the use of cannabis tax revenue to communities devastated by decades of selective enforcement.

“We are targeted,” said Lauren Manning of the Albany-based Center for Law and Justice. “While you can smell college kids using marijuana all over this city, there is no enforcement among them. But in black and brown communities, low-level arrests are used to harass and humiliate black and brown people and push them into the criminal justice system.”

Those looking to the cannabis revenue as a windfall that could solve state problems not directly related to drug policy include the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University, which issued a report Dec. 5, 2018, claiming that cannabis could generate $670 million a year for the city's subway system, now facing a $1 billion annual deficit.

Krueger's bill mandates a three-way split of the marijuana income among state educational efforts, drug treatment programs, and community investment for neighborhoods harmed by the war on drugs.

Stringer's office released an analysis on Dec. 6, 2018 about the disparities in cannabis enforcement across not only racial and ethnic but also socioeconomic lines; neighborhoods with the highest cannabis-related arrests have lower incomes, higher unemployment, lower credit scores, and lower rates of home ownership.

“It's a well-known fact that young men of color get sent away for long prison terms for simple marijuana possession, which essentially ruins their future,” Wanda James, the first African-American woman to open a dispensary in Colorado, told Weedmaps News.

Modeled on the state's liquor control authority, which provides for mom-and-pop corner liquor stores, Krueger wants to make sure that major corporations aren't the only players. Conference speakers noted that Altria and Coors both made huge investments in cannabis businesses in December 2018, anticipating legalization in the large New York market.

Support for erasing criminal records

In contrast to the fight over the marijuana-generated income, Usher anticipates relatively little resistance to measures for criminal record expungement. He also thinks the law will permit those convicted on marijuana offenses to participate in the new businesses.

However, some advocates at the DPA conference argued that merely offering expungement is inadequate as many of those eligible will slip through the cracks. States should contact those with marijuana records, they said, or make expungement automatic, similar to California's October 2018 decision to automate the process.

Darrick Hamilton, a professor of economics and urban policy at the New School, told the conference he was skeptical that states could ever atone for discriminatory, state-sanctioned drug wars.

“The real issue is means of production,” said Hamilton. “If victims of mass incarceration don't have a means of production, if we simply expunge records without providing the licensing and the capital so that they can engage in this business, then you just further entrench and enhance inequality.”

Who Would Get Licenses?

Another possible point of contention is the issue of local control over the placement of distribution outlets or the awarding of licenses to ensure that local residents get jobs in the potentially lucrative industry.

In New York's legislative process, the governor wields unusual power compared with other states. Cuomo's legalization proposal may come in the form of an entirely new bill, superseding Krueger's measure that has languished for over a decade. Cuomo also can place his legalization proposal within the state's budgetary process, given that the measure will affect state revenues and spending.

That move would strengthen Cuomo's negotiating position as members are very likely to approve the budget after the inevitable sweeteners and member favorites are included.

Nonetheless, if lawmakers are unhappy about the any of the specific provisions in the governor's bill, negotiations — accompanied by public outcry — will follow.