New York Legalizes Recreational Use of Cannabis
On March 31, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law the “Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act,” and New York became the 15th state to decriminalize adult recreational use of cannabis. The measure earlier cleared the state Senate on a 40-23 margin and had passed the state Assembly on a 100-49 vote the previous day.
The action came as several other states were taking steps to approve cannabis use. Marijuana legalization also made virtually simultaneous progress in the New Jersey and New Mexico legislatures, which also passed legalization measures (the New Jersey measure followed up a favorable statewide ballot initiative in 2020). Virginia, the first southern state to approve recreational cannabis use, amended an earlier-passed law to speed up legalization there.
Earlier action on marijuana initiatives by neighboring Massachusetts and New Jersey helped spur New York’s passage, though it drew opposition from Republican lawmakers, who echoed safety and health concerns from parent-teacher associations and law enforcement groups, such as drivers under the influence of marijuana.
The measure immediately permits personal use, possession and cultivation of cannabis, and also brings automatic expungement of past convictions for marijuana offenses that now have been legalized. Under New York State’s new legalization scheme, use of recreational cannabis will be legal for adults aged 21 and up, as will possession of up to three ounces of cannabis and 24 grams of cannabis concentrate. Households may grow up to three plants for one individual, to up to a six-plant maximum per household.
Cannabis will be subject to a 13% producer tax, with 9% going to the state and 4% to localities; Gov. Andrew Cuomo estimates this will generate about $350 million annually. A new state Office of Cannabis Management will oversee not only recreational, but also medicinal cannabis. State-authorized sales are not likely to start before mid-2022.
To promote social equity, the program aims to see half of marijuana licenses go to minority or woman-owned businesses, distressed farmers or service-disabled veterans. After covering administrative costs, 20% of cannabis tax revenue will be earmarked for treatment and public education, 40% for school aid, and 40% to a Community Grants Reinvestment Fund. Localities may opt to ban dispensaries but will forfeit financial aid if they do.
Along with Illinois and Vermont, New York and New Mexico have legalized cannabis through the state legislature, while 13 other states used ballot initiatives. The growing trend toward state legalization may also add pressure for action on federal legislation.
Last December, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the “Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Act” (the MORE Act), which would remove cannabis from the federal Controlled Substances Act — where it is listed on Schedule I, for federally illegal drugs with both a high potential for abuse and no federally recognized medical use. The MORE Act died when the Senate refused to act in the previous Congress.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) plans to re-introduce the MORE Act in this Congress soon, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has pledged to bring up legislation which he says will remove the federal prohibition on marijuana. While the Biden administration has been less forthcoming on any plans for cannabis legalization, Attorney General Merrick, during his Senate confirmation process, promised in writing not to challenge state cannabis laws.
About the Author
Scott J. Limmer is a New York criminal attorney practicing primarily in Nassau, Suffolk, and Queens counties. He also represents students nationwide when they are charged with violations of their school’s code of conduct.