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New York State of Cannabis: Will Legalization Happen?

This headline in the April 7 New York Post – “New Yorkers Are Flocking to Massachusetts for Their Legal Weed Fix” – should have raised eyebrows in Albany,

The New York State legislature is considering marijuana legalization. It has until June to reach an agreement on how taxing and regulating the popular plant will look. If there’s no agreement, then New Yorkers will continue flocking to Massachusetts, which started selling legal cannabis in stores last fall. Massachusetts borders New York State; it’s just a two-hour drive from New York City to the Bay State’s southwest border.

Legalization advocates were disappointed when an effort to fast-track cannabis regulation in the state budget by the end of March fizzled. Now, it’s a matter of finding a suitable compromise between the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), which is sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger in the Senate and by Crystal Peoples-Stokes in the Assembly, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act (CRTA).

Equity Issue of Primary Concern to Advocates and Legislators

DPA’s Melissa Moore

The issue that is being most hotly debated is equity for New Yorker who’ve suffered the most due to policies like marijuana prohibition and the overall War on Drugs, which have led to mass incarceration in communities of color.

“We’re calling for not just marijuana legalization, but marijuana justice,” Melissa Moore, New York deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, tells Freedom Leaf. «We need to respond to the legacy of harm that New York has experienced, particularly in the African American community.»

The DPA is supporting the Start Smart, which addresses the collateral consequences those who’ve been arrested for marijuana face with housing, immigration, welfare, child care and other issues.

“We need to establish an equitable and diverse industry, not just replicate the same structural inequalities in the medical program,” Moore says, referring to the state’s Medical Marijuana Program. “It’s about centering efforts on communities most impacted and creating equity licenses that make sure people have the means to participate in a meaningful way and own businesses.»

The DPA supports business incubators, zero-interest rate loans and grants structured as either low-interest loans or a grants program as well as community reinvestment.

DPA’S MELISSA MOORE ON EQUITY: “We’re calling for not just marijuana legalization, but marijuana justice.”

New York, she adds, should follow the lead of California, which created the California Cannabis Equity Act late last year. The program allocated $10 million to support people in impacted communities seeking cannabis licenses.

“The most notable difference between Cuomo’s CRTA bill and the MRTA bill is the lack of community reinvestment,” Moore points out. “That’s what that bill sponsors need to see. The MRTA has strong equity provisions and an equity program for people that have been directly impacted.”

While the CRTA addresses the expected revenue and fiscal side of cannabis, the MRTA includes amnesty for non-violent drug offenders and allocation of dispensary licenses to people in communities ravaged by the drug war.

“We’re trying to improve the governor’s revenue bill and add more social equity and criminal justice reform,” Doug Greene, legislative director of Empire State NORML, tells Freedom Leaf.

Home Grow Debate Out of the Closet

Empire State NORML’s Doug Greene addresses the crowd at the New York State Supreme Court in Mineola.

The MRTA bill would also allow adults to grow six plants at home. The CRTA only grants that permission to medical patients.

While agreement on many points seems to be close, Greene said the home grow issue faces a tougher road. “It will be politically difficult,” he concedes. “Law enforcement is mostly against it. There are also concerns about the loss of tax revenue.”

Hillary Peckham, chief operating officer of Etain Health, one of the 10 New York registered organizations (ROs) that grow and distribute medical cannabis products, says her company supports home growing for medical use as proposed in the CRTA.

EMPIRE STATE NORML’S DOUG GREENE ON HOME GROWING: “It will be politically difficult. Law enforcement is mostly against it. There are also concerns about the loss of tax revenue.”

“I can’t speak for New York State and why they might not be allowing this,” she tells Freedom Leaf. “However, it’s my understanding and belief that the goal is to ensure quality and accountability of production and sales to encourage public health and safety.

Moore says home grow has been a consistent priority voiced by state residents at listening sessions with public officials. “The ROs clearly have a financial interest in supporting a ban on home grown,» she notes. «We know from other states that safety concerns do not rise to the level to ban it from the entire state.”

Of the 10 states that have legalized marijuana since 2012, only Washington doesn’t allow hom grow for recreational purposes.

Should ROs Be First on Line for Recreational Licenses? 

From left: Etain’s Hillary, Keeley and Amy Peckham

Etain Health is interested in applying for an adult-use license if either of the measures or a compromise of the two ultimately passes. However, it’s unclear if existing ROs would be grandfathered in or if they’d have to apply along with everyone else.

Another issue that remains unclear is how ROs would be affected by the state’s proposal to split the current vertical seed-to-sale operations into production, distribution and retail business licenses. These details may be left to an executive director of the yet-to-be established regulatory body that would oversee cannabis businesses.

“It’s my understanding and belief that the executive director can allow some or all ROs to participate in the adult-use program,” Peckham explains. “He or she could also choose an auction. If he or she does neither, then it is also my understanding that we could then apply for dispensary permits or cultivation, processor and distribution licenses. In this instance, we would have to choose which portion of the business can participate in adult-use sales and apply for a permit. However, we will be able to maintain our vertical structure for the medical program.”

The campaign to open up the New York industry to smaller players should work to Etain’s advantage. Unlike other larger ROs in New York – such as Med Men, Curaleaf, Citiva and Acreage Holdings – Etain is not a multi-state operator. Etain is also female owned and operated. That can only help when it comes time to award licenses if and when legalization is passed in the Empire State.

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