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New York State legalizes marijuana

File Photo / WBFO News

The New York State legislature approved the legalization of adult recreational use of marijuana Tuesday evening, hailing the vote as an historic moment. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law Wednesday, while opponents warned that it will lead more teenagers and children to use the drug and that traffic accidents will increase.

By as soon as next year, New Yorkers 21 and over will be able to buy smokeable and edible forms of marijuana in retail stores. They will also be able to sample the drug in tasting rooms similar to wine tasting venues. And - they will also be able to grow at home up to 6 cannabis plants per person, and 12 per household. 

Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, has sponsored the bill for seven years.

“Today is an historic day for New Yorkers,” Krueger said. “I could not be more proud to cast my vote to end the failed policies of marijuana prohibition in our state, and begin the process of building a fair and inclusive legal market for adult-use cannabis. It has been a long road to get here, but it will be worth the wait.”

The measure contains a racial justice provision sought by Krueger and Assembly sponsor, Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes.  

Some 40% of the estimated $350 million gained annually from a 13% sales tax on the drug will go to a community reinvestment fund for neighborhoods adversely impacted by the decades-long prohibition of the drug. Another 20% of the funds will go to drug treatment and thr remaining 40% will be used to fund public education.

Half of the licenses to grow and sell marijuana will be reserved for people from disproportionately impacted communities and small farmers. They will get access to capital, including loans, grants, and incubator programs, to help them compete with the more established marijuana producers who will also receive licenses.

Krueger says the bill creates a “nation leading model for legalization."

"New York's program will not just talk the talk on racial justice, it will walk the walk, ending the racially disparate enforcement that was endemic to prohibition, automatically expunging the records of those who were caught up in the so-called War on Drugs," she said.

Krueger says she does not use or even really like cannabis, but she used marijuana as a teenager. She says because she is white, she was never arrested and it never hindered her progress in life.

Sen. Jabari Brisport, who is African American, had a different experience. The Brooklyn Democrat says when he was 19, he was walking in Greenwich Village with a friend who was mistaken by a plain clothes police officer for a wanted drug dealer.

“When I asked the officer to show a badge or read my friend his rights, he pulled out his gun, pointed it directly at my face and told me to back up,” Brisport said. “A plain clothes police officer nearly shot me in the face over weed. How many would-be future state senators have been accidental casualties of the War on Drugs?” he asked.

Opponents include Sen. Fred Akshar, a Binghamton-area Republican who was formerly a deputy sheriff. He says the state’s 50,000 law enforcement officers were left out of the crafting of the bill.

“There are stacks and stacks of memos of opposition from a whole wide spectrum and range of people who represent millions of New Yorkers,” Akshar said.

Other opponents include the New York State PTA, some schools associations and building contractors, who fear expensive lawsuits if workers high on marijuana get injured on the job.

Akshar predicts there will be more traffic accidents and fatalities due to increased use of the drug. He says there is no good existing technology to detect when a driver is impaired by cannabis.   

“I am afraid that if you are voting yes today, you are putting politics before people,” Akshar said.

The bill authorizes a study to find better detection technology.

Sen. Andrew Lanza, a Republican from Staten Island, says the law will make the drug more appealing to children and sends the wrong message.

“The message clearly emanating from this room to the young people of New York is ‘if you want to use marijuana do it’,” said Lanza, “and my concern is that’s going to lead to high rates of cancer (and) brain damage.”

Krueger says the law will make it harder for underage New Yorkers to get the drug, because it will be sold through licensed shops instead of the current black market. She says she hopes the law will curb New York’s largest in the nation illegal marijuana market.

The measure also expands the state’s medical marijuana program, adding more illnesses that are eligible and allowing patients access to smokeable forms of cannabis. It also allows local governments to opt out of marijuana retail shops if the majority of people in the town village or city don’t want them.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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