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Cuomo, state legislature still far apart on marijuana legalization

With only about a month left before Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York legislature must agree on a budget for the next year, the two parties are still far apart on a proposal to legalize adult use marijuana, despite the governor's prediction that legalization would be a done deal in 2021.

Last week, Cuomo amended his legalization proposal, the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act, in three particular areas. It added provisions to allow for delivery services for marijuana products, reduced felony punishments for illicit sale of marijuana, and outlined some specifics on how particular tax proceeds would be administered for social and racial equity programs.

While Democrats in the legislature say the Cuomo’s amendments are moving in the right direction, they still have significant qualms about the CRTA. They’re still pushing for the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which puts a stronger emphasis and more funding behind rectifying communities that were adversely affected by prohibition.

“If the intention of this is to truly address the inequities that are the result of the war on drugs mentality that we have had for marijuana, then the CRTA does not do that,” Assemblymember Anna Kelles (D-Ithaca) said. “The MRTA is designed with the prioritization to address exactly that.”

Assemblymember Donna Lupardo (D-Binghamton) is a co-sponsor on the MRTA. That legislation would put 50% of all tax revenue generated by cannabis into social equity programs.

“A majority of us really feel like a majority of resources need to be targeted towards these causes,” Lupardo said.

The governor’s proposal would take absolute amounts each year from the tax revenue generated by the cultivation and sale of cannabis products and put it into what is being called the Social Equity Fund.

As outlined in the amendment, nonprofits and local governments would be able to apply for grants for projects dealing with a range of topics including job placement, housing, substance abuse treatment and financial literacy. That process would be overseen by a smattering of state agencies including Empire State Development and approved by the governor’s budget director.

In the first year, $10 million of marijuana tax revenue would go into the fund. That figure would increase by $10 million each year until it reaches $50 million per year. Any tax revenue generated beyond that would be put into the Cannabis Revenue Fund. How and where money from that fund would be spent is unclear.

Legislative Democrats’ qualms do not stop at the social equity funding, there are additional concerns as well with the taxation structure, criminal penalties and oversight of the governor’s proposed Office of Cannabis Management.

Both the CRTA and MRTA would also address the areas of medicinal marijuana and industrial hemp.

Over the months ahead New York lawmakers will have plenty to deal with between the next federal relief package, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, and Cuomo embroiled in several scandals. The political oxygen to push through marijauna legalization may not exist in March.

Lupardo said while the legislature and governor are seemingly far apart on the proposals, they could come to an agreement in a short amount of time.

“When you talk about distance in ‘Albany terms,’ the usual rules of space and time don’t always apply,” Lupardo said. “So we can be very very far apart then we quickly come together at the very last minute, which is often the case.”

Though she said it’s still far off, if a total agreement isn’t reached, there’s a chance a framework with earmarked funds for the Office of Cannabis Management could be included in the budget with the expectation lawmakers finalize details later in the session.

Advocacy groups also echoed calls for Cuomo to bring his proposal more in line with the MRTA.

“Empire State NORML is encouraged by the fact that the Governor has proposed amendments to the CRTA which previously had significant flaws, but we don’t believe the language of these amendments truly address the issues,” Deputy Director Troy Smit said in a statement.

“While these changes are a move in the right direction, they are not a substitute for the more comprehensive Marijuana Reform and Taxation Act (MRTA), which remains the gold standard reform bill in the Legislature,” New York State Drug Policy Alliance Director Mellisa Moore wrote in a press release. “That must be the starting point as it has stronger equity and community reinvestment provisions and a more balanced governance structure for the Office of Cannabis Management than the Governor’s proposal. We urge its swift passage to secure justice, jobs, equity, and true community investment for millions of New Yorkers.”

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