It’s Social and Economic Justice: Understanding New York’s New Marijuana Law

By Brandon Vogel

It’s Social and Economic Justice: Understanding New York’s New Marijuana Law

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By her own admission, Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes isn’t one to think people should smoke marijuana.

But she is a realist and recognizes that many people do so. More than that, she wanted to right a decades-long societal wrong.

“My first priority, first and foremost, was to stop the mass incarceration of black and brown people, and invest in fixing some of the damage that was created not just in them, but in their families, in their children and the communities in which they reside,” said Peoples-Stokes.

On March 31, 2021, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Marijuana Regulation And Taxation Act (MRTA) into law. It creates a new framework to regulate the production and sale of cannabis, creates a new adult-use cannabis program and expands the existing medical cannabis and cannabinoid (CBD) hemp program.

Moderator Lynelle K. Bosworth, Greenberg Traurig, and co-chair of the Committee on Cannabis Law, said, “The bill does so much more than that” on the CLE webinar, “Overview of The Marijuana Regulation And Taxation Act (MRTA).”

Panelists looked at  how social equity will work, how the Office of Cannabis Management will run, and how the new legislation will impact communities and families.

Getting it right

Assemblywoman Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said this is one of the most important conversations before the state, if not the nation. The intent is to reduce violent crime and end racial disparities. “It’s just been a horrible impact on these folks who have been incarcerated as a result of these low levels of marijuana.”

She noted that the legalization of marijuana could generate significant revenue for the state “and it will” due to New York being home to one of the largest underground markets. The revenue will make impactful contributions towards communities and people previously affected by cannabis criminalization.

“The Office of Court Administration is going to get the funding it needs in order to expunge all those records, some of them are, you know, you have to dig up from years ago but we’re going to go through all those and there’s a two-year timeline to get all that done,” said Axel Bernabe, assistant counsel to Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.

She addressed a common question about how the legalization will affect youth. She said that, like alcohol, it will be restricted to adults 21 years of age and older. “It’s going to help them not have access to something that they’re not properly old enough to have access to.”

Sen. Jeremy A. Cooney, D-Rochester, said “We wanted to make sure this legislation was done right; it wasn’t so much about getting it done, but it was about making sure it was done correctly and that it would actually benefit the people of the state that we wanted it to benefit.”

He noted that in the city of Rochester, “You are 16 times more likely to be arrested on a marijuana drug offense if you are black than if you are white. That is just one example of the injustice that has been taking place for years, for decades, because of the war on drugs.”

With the new legal marketplace, Cooney said, those who have been most harmed by the war on drugs will now have the ability to participate and hopefully benefit from a successful private marketplace.

“We were intentional about crafting and passing legislation that would not let just one or two players come in and dominate it right and so that’s, I think, for me from a social equity standpoint, outside of community reinvestment, allowing the community that have been most hurt to now benefit. And that’s really exciting.”

Peoples-Stokes added, “The licenses were split up in a way that no one can just come in and gobble up four or five of them; the regulation will lay that out clearly this is an opportunity to create New York State businesses.”

She explained that the legislation is intended for New Yorkers to first have access to the marketplace. “There are a lot of farmers who are losing ground, and they really do need an opportunity to reinvent themselves and a lot of them are black farmers and some of them are not.”

The legislation also allows for social consumption sites for people who cannot smoke where they live. Federal law prohibits smoking cigarettes in public housing, which also extends to smoking marijuana.

All cannabis taxes will be deposited in the New York State cannabis revenue fund. Revenue covers reasonable costs to administer the program and implement the law. The remaining funding will be split three ways: 40% to the Education Fund; 40% to Community Grants Reinvestment Fund, meant for nonprofits in the communities; 20% to Drug Treatment and Public Education Fund, to teach people how to consume responsibly and not to drive under the influence. “It’s going to be very impactful,” said Bernabe. Cooney noted some local officials already have plans on how to spend the new revenue.

Peoples-Stokes added that cities, towns, and villages may opt out of allowing adult-use cannabis retail dispensaries or on-site consumption licenses by passing a local law by Dec. 31, 2021 or nine months after the effective date of the legislation. They cannot opt out of adult-use legalization. Counties may not opt out of retail dispensaries or on-site licenses.

Office of Cannabis Management

The Office of Cannabis Management, which will be an independent office operating as part of the New York State Liquor Authority, will be charged with enforcing a comprehensive regulatory framework governing medical, adult-use cannabinoid hemp.

It will be governed by a “mission critical” five-member Cannabis Control board, with three members appointed by the governor and one appointed by each house. The board will issue licenses, revoke licenses, issue regulations, appoint employees and implement the social equity plan. The vision is for cannabis operations to be smaller, independent businesses like wine and liquor stores in New York.

The chair will be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, Bernabe said. The office will also have an executive director and a chief equity officer.

“I think that speaks volumes again to the intent of the legislation that there be a senior position in the office that is dedicated to social equity and making sure that the entirety of what is rolled out is through the lens of society equity,” Bernabe said.

There will be a separate 13-member advisory board focused on reinvestment on the communities with a focus on grants and policy direction. Bernabe said the advisory board is diverse in geography and subject matter experts.

People-Stokes agreed that the board has to be diverse to succeed.

“How we are going to fix the lives of the people who were disenfranchised in the city of Buffalo may not look like how we fix the lives of the people who were disenfranchised in the city of Utica and it may not look like how we fix the lives of people in the Bronx. The board is as diverse as the issues are,” she said.

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