Recreational marijuana nearing legalization in New York. What you need to know

ALBANY – Political leaders have struck a deal to legalize recreational marijuana, but there’s still no published bill and concerns remain over details in how revenue would be distributed, according to a source briefed on the package.

“An agreement is imminently close, (and) we hope to resolve any final bill language issues over the next few days as we await the final print version of the bill to vote on next week,” state Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes said in a statement to The Associated Press.

The bill was negotiated by the Executive Chamber, state Sen. Liz Krueger and Peoples-Stokes. In past efforts to legalize marijuana for recreational use, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has included it as part of his executive budget proposal, which gives the governor increased negotiating leverage. This year, as the governor is beset by multiple scandals and calls for his resignation, the deal has been negotiated separately from the budget, and Cuomo appears to have given ground on some key issues to the Legislature.

The budget is due to be negotiated before the end of the current state fiscal year on Wednesday.

This is the third straight year Cuomo has attempted to negotiate a deal to legalize marijuana, and the talks have been behind closed doors (or the virtual equivalent), with participants staying quiet about progress.

“We are close, but we’ve been close before” Cuomo said in a Wednesday news conference. “This is getting it over the goal line, and those last few inches tend to be the toughest.”

Left unsaid was the fact that a popular, high-profile policy change like legalizing marijuana would be particularly attractive to a governor whose own popularity is heading in the wrong direction.

Under the current shape of the agreement, marijuana would be subject to a total sales tax of 13 percent, combining a state tax of 9 percent and local tax of 4 percent, according to the source. Of the 9 percent state sales tax, 40 percent would go to communities of color most harmed by the decades-long war on drugs, 40 percent would go to education and the remainder would go to anti-addiction efforts.

The way the 4 percent would be split is the subject of contention from county leaders, who have not been included in negotiations.

Under the current blueprint, cities, towns and villages can opt out of allowing marijuana retailers in their communities. To create an incentive to allow it, the proposal would direct 75 percent of the local sales taxes to the municipalities that host the stores, while just 25 percent would go to counties. County leaders say this is unfair as counties will bear the brunt of the costs of marijuana legalization – such as public health services or policing of impaired drivers.

The proposal is a departure from how sales tax is collected normally in the state, said Marc Molinaro, Dutchess County executive and president of the New York State County Executives Association.

“It defies logic in that the bulk of the revenue goes to the municipality that won’t bear the brunt of the cost,” Molinaro said. County leaders want to see the breakdown of local taxes readjusted so that counties receive more of the money raised.

County leaders “have not been involved in this last round of negotiations,” Molinaro said. “We have been in the past, and I’d offer to you that we have been in the past because the executive draws us in. The dynamic in Albany right now just does not seem to be the normal way a budget is negotiated.”

Some of the state’s 9 percent sales tax would make its way back to counties, he acknowledged, such as from a proposal mental health fund.

“But if you believe the executive branch is going to equitably distribute those dollars, then I have a bridge to name after you,” he said.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, the largest anti-legalization advocacy group in the U.S., is rallying supporters to call state senators upstate and on Long Island – some of the remaining bastions of Republican influence – to vote against the legislation.

“Once the government says something is OK, once something is approved by the state, that takes on a life of its own,” said Kevin Sabet, the president and co-founder of the group and a drug policy advisor in the Obama administration. “And I just worry that once again we’re falling into the trap of essentially addiction for profit, which is what happened with the opioid crisis, the tobacco crisis, and others.”

Edward McKinley