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Little agreement on legal marijuana

New York state is already one of the biggest marijuana markets in the country — the question before state lawmakers is whether that market should be legal or not.

A portion of this week’s joint legislative budget hearing on taxes included a discussion on marijuana taxes that have been included in the 2021-22 state budget, but the discussion quickly turned into a debate over the legalization of marijuana and not its impact on the state budget.

“I do just want to remind everyone all the concerns they may have about marijuana, and it’s legitimate, concerns about any kind of mind-altering drug, whether it’s alcohol or marijuana or a dangerous addictive drug, there are prices that come along with it,” said Sen. Liz Krueger, D-New York City and sponsor of the marijuana legalization bill in the state Senate. “I completely agree. The thing is, here in New York, that’s already been here forever. We’re the largest marijuana market in the country by far. It’s just none of it is legal or regulated with any attempts to make sure it’s a safe product or that there’s a limitation on the strength of the THC or that you’re going after people who are violating your law. My position is we already have it, should we be doing it right? People can welcome having different positions.”

There was a lengthy discussion between legislators and three advocates who testified during the hearing. Testifying Wednesday, Dr. Kevin Sabet, president of SAM Action Inc., Allan Gandelman, New York Cannabis Growers and Processors Association president, and Nqiste Abebe, New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association president, sparred often in their response to legislators’ questions. Sabet, whose organization advocates for healthy marijuana policies that do not legalize drugs, said one of his concerns is creating a legal marijuana market in addition to the illegal market as well as what he calls a gray market. He said if 10% of New Yorkers are assumed to use marijuana, it’s difficult to say that all of that 10% will automatically move over to the legal market in an easy shift.

“It’s not just that we all think it’s just going to go away or we don’t have a robust marijuana market now,” Sabet said. “We do. I’d personally rather have 7% of New Yorkers engage in a marijuana market that might be illegal than 30% be engaged in something that’s controlled by big tobacco and big alcohol. That is a tradeoff. All policy is a tradeoff. The worry isn’t so much that there will be a 1-to-1 shift. The worry is that we’re going to see costs mount and there will be a dual market, actually a triple market — an illegal market remaining, a legal market and then a gray market. And the gray market we’ve seen in places like Colorado big time where you have people and distributors buying legally and selling illegally because it’s still illegal for kids, after hours and that kind of thing. Those are the concerns especially when we start talking about delivery services, on-site consumption and pot bars generally. These are some of the concerns.”

Assemblyman Edward Ra, R-Garden City, asked about the need for money to be set aside in the state budget for additional drug recognition experts. The lack of drug recognition experts was something state Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, brought up as an issue recently in response to questions posed to him by The Post-Journal, and testimony by the panel brought a range of opinions on the issue. Sabet argued that there will be a huge need for drug recognition experts as well as other issues if marijuana is legalized.

“I don’t think we can underestimate also the administrative costs, the regulatory costs,” Sabet said. “I haven’t seen one state deal with that particularly well in terms of being able to distribute that. It often goes to a general fund. There are often promises that it will go to prevention and treatment and things like that, but again I haven’t seen that well. I certainly haven’t seen it be reinvested as we’re hearing in communities that have been hurt by the war on drugs. Frankly the communities that we work with are a lot of very vulnerable communities — the last thing they want are pot shops in their community, just like they don’t want liquor stores in their community. It doesn’t help them. It doesn’t help them raise their youth. It doesn’t help raise real estate prices. They see it just like those payday cash shops and I’m sure most of you know the majority of localities in states that have legalized have actually banned marijuana sales altogether. They don’t want the revenue because they know it comes with considerable costs. There are a lot of considerations there.”

Gandelman agreed that the state shouldn’t want to see its marijuana market run by big tobacco, but disagreed that cities will shy away from marijuana stores. He also said the state should not overlook the potential economic development aspect of legalized marijuana aside from potential tax revenues.

“I think the bigger issue is that we still have a social equity piece happening in the cities,” Gandelman said. “So for Mr. Sabet to say these communities, they don’t want this or they don’t want that — I think that’s really not fair and I think we should be letting those communities speak for themselves when it comes to this topic. I don’t think making sweeping generalizations is really fair to anyone. That being said the amount of jobs and revenue this will create in those communities, especially if we allow social consumption and home delivery, is astronomical. The last revenue report that came out, there was an independent study that came out last week that was citing 50,000 jobs. This is not a small number of jobs especially affecting communities that have been impacted by the war on drugs.”

The lone source of agreement, expressed via a nod of all three heads during Zoom testimony, was a preference for bills in the state Assembly and Senate to be the starting place for marijuana legalization discussions rather than language Cuomo introduced recently in the form of a 30-day budget amendment. Cuomo’s proposal includes a $100 million fund to be used in communities that have been most harmed by the war on drugs, includes delivery services and criminalizes improper sales. The legislative approach, A.1248/S.854, uses proceeds from marijuana taxes in a general state cannabis revenue fund, a state drug treatment and public education fund and a Community Grants Reinvestment Fund.

“I think we believe the governor’s proposal could be improved as well and that between the CRT and the MRTA there is a pathway to effective legalization in New York,” Abebe said in response to a question from Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston.

Sabet, also in response to a question from Cahill, said the state could consider several measures to make its market safer, including potency limits, child packaging, warning labels, flavor limitations, enforcement of a Clean Indoor Air Act type of regulation for marijuana. Cahill said his question aimed to find way to create a marijuana market that is the most responsible market in the United States and which doesn’t create a dependency on marijuana tax revenue, drawing a comparison to the state’s reliance on lottery funding.

“The MRTA bill provides for a significant amount of the resources that would be derived from the bill to be specifically dedicated to purposes other than puffing up the budget,” Cahill said. “Pardon that pun there. It’s intended to enhance programs for prevention and treatment. It’s intended for reinvesting in communities, it’s intended for a variety of purposes that do not tout marijuana as a revenue producer and therefore make it as attractive to the state of New York as the lottery has become. Let’s not even talk about alcohol for a minute. The lottery has become, as I call it, a tax on stupidity. It seems like we could be heading down the same path if marijuana becomes primarily a revenue raiser.”

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