New York Governor Will Try Again to Legalize Adult Pot Use

Although failing to make good last year on his plan to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana (or, as the New York penal code has it, “marihuana”), Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has renewed his intention to make that a priority part of his wide-ranging 2020 agenda, which is dubbed “Making Progress Happen.”

In his annual State of the State address on January 7, Cuomo called marijuana legalization a long overdue part of criminal justice reform, noting unequal enforcement of state marijuana laws had for decades “disproportionately affected” communities of color.

In 2019, Cuomo’s plan to include marijuana legalization in budget legislation died early in the year, and further negotiations with the state legislature on a modified bill fell apart by early summer over issues like who would be authorized to sell marijuana not used for medicinal purposes and how the new state revenues generated by those sales would be used.

This year the governor is predicting legalizing adult recreational marijuana for persons age 21 and up could bring in as much as $300 million in new state tax revenue – a not insignificant sum, especially in a year state government is facing an estimated $6 billion budget shortfall. Another part of Cuomo’s marijuana-related proposal calls for the state university system to launch a research program on the health effects on marijuana.

Cuomo also pledged to work with three neighboring states (Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) to coordinate the four states’ systems governing legal recreational use of marijuana. New Jersey also failed to act on legalization last year, but such an initiative will be on this November’s ballot there. Two other New York neighbor states (Massachusetts and Vermont) are already among the 11 states which have approved legalization.

Even though New York did not legalize non-medical use of marijuana in 2019, it did adopt a decriminalization measure, which makes possessing under two ounces of marijuana a civil violation subject to a $200 fine, rather than a crime, and also eases expungement of past convictions.

Delay in New York’s Marijuana Legalization Cause a Lawsuit Against a Government Entity

But while Gov. Cuomo and his allies are seeking to expand the availability of marijuana, another part of New York’s government is being sued for its policies restricting access to medical marijuana. Early this year, the New York chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws and several other plaintiffs brought suit against the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Services.

The lawsuit aims to invalidate agency policies which forbid medical marijuana use by ex-inmates while they are on probation. The petitioners argue agency probation rules violate the state’s Compassionate Use Act, which since January 2016 has regarded any certified medical marijuana patient as covered by the state’s Human Rights Law, and thus protected against discrimination.

The New York probation system bases denial of medical marijuana to its probationers on the federal illegality of cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act. Those who attack that position point out Congress has repeatedly passed provisions blocking federal funds from being used to take action against official state actions that comply with that state’s marijuana laws.

About the Author

Scott J. Limmer is a New York criminal attorney practicing primarily in Nassau, Suffolk, and Queens counties. You can contact Scott anytime. He is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year-round and your initial consultation is free.

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