Cannabis is legal: What’s going to change?

By John Donegan

This story originally appeared in the 4/9/21 edition of the Westmore News. For the original article, follow the link.

The State of New York passed the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) on Wednesday, Mar. 31, becoming the 16th state to legalize recreational cannabis. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the legislation hours after the senate voted 40-23 in favor and assembly approved it 100-49.

Both Assemblyman Steve Otis and Senator Shelley Mayer voted in favor of the bill.

New Yorkers over the age of 21 will be able to buy up to three ounces of pot for their personal enjoyment and smoke it anywhere one would smoke tobacco, though the bill allows for localities to set further restrictions in public spaces, such as parking lots or beaches, so long as it does not wholly restrict public consumption.

The law is the result of years of back-and-forth on the debate floor, particularly over how tax revenues should be used and how to regulate the plant’s usage.

The controlled cannabis market is expected to be the second largest in the country. It’s projected to be a $4.2 billion industry within five years of legalization taking effect, and, according to Cuomo’s office, will rake in $350 million in annual tax revenue. However, legislators in the bill estimated revenues could be closer to $436 million, not including New York City.

Where does the money go?

One of the biggest promises given by the state is that cannabis sales would go back into the community. And the bill seems to stick to that promise.

A 9% sales tax is stipulated for cannabis sales, plus an additional 4% tax split between the county and local government. While weed is generally taxed by its weight, the law will instead implement a tax per milligram of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, with a range from .5 cent per milligram for flower to 3 cents per milligram for edibles, depending on potency.

The state tax will be sourced into three different streams: 40% of the revenue will go to the State Lottery Fund for public education, 40% for equity programs focused on communities disproportionately affected by prior drug laws and 20% for drug treatment and prevention programs.

Several offices will be created to manage the transition and regulation of legal weed. A newly created Cannabis Advisory Board will oversee the grants awarded to community-based nonprofits and local municipalities, though members have not been announced this early into the process.

Examples of qualifying programs mentioned in the legislation include job placement, job skills services, adult education, mental health treatment, substance use disorder, financial literacy, community banking, nutrition services, among others. The Office of Cannabis Management will divvy licensing for dispensaries, with half of the permits guaranteed to equity applicants.

What will legal weed look like in P.C and R.B.?

The Cannabis Control Board will oversee cannabis marketing and approve or reject all advertising. Advertisements are prohibited within 500 feet of schools and playgrounds, as well as parks, billboards, libraries, and on all public transportation.

It is unclear at this time what Villages of Rye Brook and Port Chester will allow in terms of smoking in public and private sales of cannabis, though local leaders in both will likely discuss the prospects of dispensaries soon.

“That’s a conversation that coincidentally I put on for discussion with the Board of Trustees at our next board meeting,” said Rye Brook Mayor Paul Rosenberg.

“Given the current makeup of the current board, I don’t know that that would happen, because there is a 3-3 split on the topic, particularly given the vote on the drug paraphernalia law and how that fell out,” said Port Chester Trustee Joan Grangenois-Thomas. The Port Chester Board voted 4-3 on Feb. 16 to ban all drug paraphernalia. With the retirement of former Mayor Richard Falanka, any future vote on cannabis could stall with an even split.

When the trustees met to discuss the ban, they spoke on the eventual legalization of cannabis, with the main divide being over why the state pushed so hard for its passage. Some believe the state is trying to undo many misguided drug laws, while others feel it is simply salivating over the potential tax dollars.

“The legalization here in New York State is inevitable, but the state’s doing it out of hunger for tax dollars, as did every other state that passed these laws,” said Port Chester Trustee Bart Didden at a February meeting. Didden pointed to California, which fell short of 2020 payoff expectations from $514 million to $369 million. 

“I think that state legislators that are entertaining the legalization of marijuana would take umbrage with what Trustee Didden said about how they’re only doing it because they’re hungry for the tax dollars,” Trustee Dan Brakewood replied. “They may also be looking at these as unjust laws that didn’t really work.”

Port Chester Trustee Alex Payan, who spearheaded the passage of the paraphernalia ban in Port Chester, did not respond to requests for comment following the passage of legalization.

What about people with criminal records due to prior marijuana laws?

For people with marijuana-related convictions for offenses that are now legal, their records will be expunged—a victory for many civil rights groups and advocates. However, the legislation cannot undo the emotional and fiscal damages left on communities, particularly communities of color, after years of questionable drug laws.

“That certainly is something we know has impacted communities of color and culturally, this is beginning to make a right out of a wrong,” said Grangenois-Thomas. “However, lives have already been ruined and families have already been separated.”

In its introduction, MRTA flatly acknowledges New York’s previous marijuana policies were “broken, unjust, and outdated,” and its passing into law is based on the acknowledgment that “New York’s existing marijuana policies have failed to protect the welfare of our communities…has thrust thousands of New Yorkers into the criminal justice system for non-violent offenses, denying many the fundamental right to participate in the democratic process of voting and inhibiting otherwise law-abiding citizens’ ability to access housing, student loans, employment opportunities, and other vital services.”

“It’s seeing the history of the laws and how, ultimately, they failed and it’s recognizing that as a society, views are changing, and it’s also revenue,” Grangenois-Thomas said.

How will weed legalization affect motor safety?

Another major concern with legal weed is how it will affect road safety and the ability for police to curb driving while stoned. A police officer can still use the odor of burnt cannabis as a reason to suspect a driver is intoxicated, but the cop cannot use that smell alone as justification for searching a vehicle.

“As mayor of Rye Brook, I am concerned about the public safety implications that this will have,” Rosenberg said. “I’m not in favor of legalizing it at this point, given the fact that, as far as I’m aware, there is no similar test to a breathalyzer that the police could administer in the field to determine how much marijuana is in someone’s system and if it’s having any kind of impairment on their driving.”

MRTA ordered a study, to be completed by Dec. 31, 2022, that examines the extent that cannabis impairs driving and whether it depends on factors like time and metabolism. Bill sponsor Sen. Liz Krueger said there isn’t a clear link between marijuana legalization and traffic accidents, though Rosenberg isn’t as convinced.

“I think they need to take a hard look at some of the states that have had it legalized for a number of years and determine what the ramifications have been,” Rosenberg said. “When you start thinking about potentially driving under the influence, what happened in Colorado and California when they legalized it?”

The consensus on studies of legalization and stoned driving brings mixed results. Two 2017 studies utilizing the U.S. Fatality Analysis Reporting System found no significant change in roadway deaths after legalization in Colorado and Washington; a third in 2018 reported a small increase in overall crash rates; a fourth found a slight increase in traffic deaths in four early legalized states compared to non-legal states.

Cannabis use clearly affects driving ability, but not by much—perhaps because most consumption still happens at home, though that may change with in the introduction of weed lounges that could, at the earliest, open next year. While a regulatory framework is not yet in place, the legislation did say lounges would not be allowed to sell alcohol.

Will legal pot encourage more use by teens?

“It’s important to educate our legislators about the consequences of legalizing medical marijuana, that the issue needs to be removed from the New York State budget,” Payan said in a conversation the week prior to the bill’s passing. Payan said he wrote an email to Assemblyman Otis and Senator Mayer advising them to remove cannabis from the docket “so there could be an adequate discussion on the issue.”

“I think legislators need to understand the complex issue and repercussions for youth and for our public health in general,” he added.

Despite many concerns by New York Parent-Teacher Associations, school administrations and parents on the impact legalization will have on encouraging minor usage, studies show it may have the opposite effect.

A December 2020 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found no evidence that recreational marijuana legalization correlated with increased use among adolescents. Instead, usage reportedly declined 16 percent. One year earlier, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that “marijuana use among youth may actually decline after legalization for recreational purposes.”

Underage drinking continues to be a problem in both villages, yet no effort has been made to illegalize alcohol and remove it from shelves.

Since legalization was announced, Cuomo has faced some backlash from a 2017 press conference where he told reporters that he believed cannabis was a gateway drug.

“Marijuana leads to other drugs and there’s a lot of proof that that’s true,” he said at the time. “There are two sides to the argument. But I, as of this date, I am unconvinced on recreational marijuana.”

“How is [Cuomo] going from calling it a gateway drug to all of a sudden approving the use and legalization of marijuana?” Rosenberg questioned.

A year later, Cuomo began pushing for legalization. And whether it is a desire for tax dollars or a desire for amending the wrongs of the past, it is clear that views toward cannabis have changed in recent years, across the country and within the villages.

That said, legislation can only create a framework for society to live within; understanding and accepting the nuance by which to co-exist with legal cannabis is something that people may need to figure out for themselves.

“In my view, as a country, I think there has been an overreliance on legislation to deal with certain social ills as opposed to doing the hard work that is required which is taking a real hard look at these issues,” Grangenois-Thomas said. “My point is, what are the reasons people turn to drugs? Sometimes it is just for the recreational use, as we know people do with alcohol. Sometimes there are other underlying issues—and those are the issues we have difficulty wrapping our minds around, making mental health acceptable.”

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