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New York Lawmakers Still Not Together On Legalization Details

April 4th 2019 photo/istock/Joseph Tabacca
By Roger Malespin

 One of the biggest moments for legalization in the U.S. will be when the state of New York passes a bill for medical and/or recreational marijuana. As of now, it seems that it will be at least 2021 when that happens, but lawmakers in Albany are still divided on the details for legalization,  putting some doubt on it being a foregone conclusion as some think it is.

 There is always a balancing act to setting tax rate and allocation because the state needs enough revenue to be useful but also ensure it isn’t too expensive for customers. The tax rate currently floated by Governor Cuomo is 22%. The first part would be on the growers and not affect consumers directly. The largest portion, 20%, would be on the wholesalers and/or retailers depending if the business is integrated, which will largely determine the price the customers pay. The last 2% would be on the county where the retailer is located.

 The differences come in how lawmakers think the money should be allocated. Cuomo’s plan was initially vague but he wanted the governor’s office to have full control over allocation, which other lawmakers are firmly against. NYC mayor De Blasio wants more money than Cuomo was willing to give towards the NYC subway system, and the governor wants whatever money is given to come from sales within NYC rather than the state revenue.

 The other major split is with some black lawmakers refusing to sign on unless a larger portion of revenue is allocated to help minority communities in various ways. These lawmakers, led by Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D- Buffalo) are not budging from this stance. Peoples-Stokes suggestion for a bill would take about half of the marijuana revenue and put it toward grants for "community-based non-profits. Those grants would have to go toward job training, mental-health treatment, adult education or other support services in communities that were disproportionately affected by past federal and state drug policies."

 “They thought we were going to trust that at the end of the day, these communities would be invested in. But that’s not something I want to trust,” she continued. “If it’s not required in the statute, then it won’t happen.”

 Her position is not unfounded. In Colorado, black applicants for dispensary licenses have said they were denied because of previous non-violent marijuana convictions. Additionally, black ownership makes up only a small handful of current active marijuana businesses, and they are still arrested at about 3 times the rate of white citizens for non-violent drug offenses.
Some places have learned from this mistake and made changes. For example, Oakland county in California requires at least half of new dispensary licenses be given to lower income citizens who have non violent marijuana convictions, but more work needs to be done.

 Governor Cuomo and his supporters argue that the details Assemblywoman Peoples-Stokes wants are not appropriate for the legislative phase and are always worked out after the bill is passed. But Peoples-Stokes and her side say Cuomo’s inability to commit to meaningful help for minority communities undermines his past promises of doing so when drumming up support for legalization.

 Because of these issues, legalization was not in the state budget for 2019, and is thought to be looking dim for 2020 as well. Governor Cuomo has indeed used the effect the war on drugs has had on minority communities as a leading bullet point for legalization, and did make several if vague statements about allocating significant tax revenue to address those problems. Politics is politics, but the damage the war on drugs has done to minority communities is real. If the governor is not willing to make good on his own promises, he risks losing legalization entirely.