Recreational marijuana ‘ripe’ for New York budget talks

ALBANY – The presidential election may have underscored the deep divide in the United States, but it also revealed some issues Americans agree on regardless of political affiliation: legalizing recreational cannabis.

Voters in South Dakota and Montana – states that went red for President Donald J. Trump’s reelection – Arizona as well as neighboring New Jersey, approved recreational, adult-use marijuana in last week’s election.

As more Northeastern states approve recreational use of marijuana, the pressure for New York to move forward with its own program is increasing as supporters point to revenue the Empire State is missing out on as neighboring states open up shops.

New York was on track to pass recreational cannabis this year, but the effort stalled as the coronavirus pandemic struck. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had planned to tour states that have legalized marijuana to find out what worked and what didn’t, but the pandemic foiled those plans.

With the state projecting a multi-billion-dollar deficit for years, in part due to the pandemic, Cuomo is eyeing pot sales as an opportunity for new revenue. Taxing the sale of recreational marijuana could lend a hand in filling budget holes, he said during an interview on WAMC on Thursday.

“I think this year it is ripe because the state is going to be desperate for funding even with (Joe) Biden, even with a stimulus, even with everything else, we’re still going to need funding. It’s also the right policy, so I think we get there this year,” Cuomo said. “I’ve supported it for years. The question becomes about the money, about the distribution and the power.”

State lawmakers have struggled to reach consensus on how the state would manage revenue, support minority communities and prioritize public safety, all hurdles that legislators have raised. It was those obstacles that forced a stalemate among legislators in 2019.

Of course, New York wouldn’t immediately see the revenue from sales; it would take time to establish the program, license retailers and open businesses, said Sen. Liz Krueger, the Manhattan Democrat who has championed the bill for years.

“Anyone who thinks legalized marijuana is the silver bullet for revenue problems for their state is just wrong,” she said. “It is true that a mature, adult recreational program, which would take multiple years to build in New York, should bring in a reasonable and consistent amount of tax revenue on the taxes of the sale of the product.”

Krueger said the Legislature has been extremely committed to the social justice aspect of legalizing marijuana, which means changing or eliminating laws that have put young people of color in prison for selling the plant.

“We also want to make sure that they can go into the legal business,” she said. “We want to support the creation of new businesses in Black and brown communities so they are not locked out by the new legal opportunities.”

Legalizing the plant for adult consumption also would create new jobs in New York, which Krueger said makes it important to get the program right.

The legal cannabis industry in the United States – which includes both medical and recreational programs – employs more than 243,000 people, according to a recent report of the industry from Leafly, a cannabis website tracking legalization.

Both state Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have said any recreational marijuana program must support minority communities that have been a focus of marijuana arrests for decades.

“Our position hasn’t changed,” said Mike Murphy, spokesman for the Senate majority leader. “It is certainly something that we believe will get done and with the need for additional revenue, it makes it even more important that it is done in the right way.”

Krueger said legislators need to “do this right” by establishing a state agency that will oversee the burgeoning industry; creating proper regulations; reversing laws that have disproportionately impacted communities of color, and establishing a taxation system that does not make sales cost prohibitive and drive the underground market.

“We don’t want to be competing with the cartel business,” she said. “We want to put them out of the business, and that means we have to make sure it is not less expensive to go buy, whatever, in the alley behind the store than going into the store and buying the legal product.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story did not provide an updated outcome in election results for the state of Arizona. Joe Biden ultimately received the most votes in Arizona. 

Amanda Fries