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Questions linger over weed legalization

AP Photo A marijuana plant is grown under lights at the Boulder County Caregivers in Boulder, Colo. on Friday, July 24, 2009. It’s all legal and it’s all taxed. But this marijuana dispensary and nearly 60 others that are serving a growing number of medical marijuana users operate with little oversight by state or local authorities.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has yet to answer the questions about legalized marijuana raised over the course of several years by local state representatives.

Cuomo on Tuesday released his 30-day amendments to legislation establishing a comprehensive adult-use marijuana program in New York state. Cuomo’s plan includes how a $100 million in social equity funding will be allocated, creates a way to use delivery services and refines which criminal charges will be enforced as it relates to the improper sale of cannabis.

“As we work to reimagine, rebuild and reopen New York, we’re taking every opportunity to address and correct decades of institutional wrongs to build back better than ever before,” Cuomo said. “We know that you cannot overcome a problem without first admitting there is one. Our comprehensive approach to legalizing and regulating the adult-use cannabis market provides the opportunity to generate much-needed revenue, but it also enables us to directly support the communities most impacted by the war on drugs by creating equity and jobs at every level, in every community in our great state.”

Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, and state Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, have several issues in the past regarding legalizing marijuana.

While Goodell was not available Wednesday for comment, Borrello said his previous concerns have not been addressed.

“In fact, it’s gotten worse as the far-left advocates that are pushing for little to no taxation and to allow anyone to grow it at home,” Borrello said.

Initial legislation proposed as part of Cuomo’s budget proposal includes the creation of a new Office of Cannabis Management that would oversee recreational use as well as existing medical use. Cuomo would appoint all members of the five-person Cannabis Control Board that would approve the type and number of available licenses, approve the opening of new license application periods, be able to create new types of licenses and approve price quotas or price controls.

It also would offer licensing opportunities for those in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by law enforcement efforts against marijuana to become entrepreneurs in the new recreational market.

“Local governments, especially county governments, will increase expenses for the public healthy and safety impacts of legalized recreational marijuana while the state keeps virtually all of the revenue,” Borrello said Wednesday. “Also, I still have not seen any increased funding for local governments which will be on the front lines of dealing with the fallout. We need more funding for Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) in order to make sure arrest for driving under the influence of marijuana will lead to actual convictions.”

Cuomo proposes spending $100 million in communities that he says have been most harmed by the war on drugs. That fund would be disbursed to community-based nonprofit organizations and local governments for things like job placement and skills services, adult education, mental health treatment, substance use disorder treatment, housing, financial literacy, community banking, nutrition services, services to address adverse childhood experiences, afterschool and child care services, system navigation services, legal services to address barriers to reentry, and linkages to medical care, women’s health services and other community-based supportive services. Grants may also be used to further support the social and economic equity program.

Borrello said the idea of distressed areas is highly political and is not a fair way to determine who should receive a license to sell marijuana. The senator also questioned Cuomo’s projected state revenues.

Cuomo said the marijuana legalization is expected to create more than 60,000 new jobs, spur $3.5 billion in economic activity while generating an estimated $350 million in tax revenue once fully implemented. Robert Mujica, state budget director, said earlier this year that it could take several years before legalized marijuana creates that much revenue.

Borrello isn’t so sure $350 million can be realized either because areas that have alternatives to the state-licensed stores are likely to see tax-free marijuana sales harm local sales.

The law as proposed gives the Cannabis Control Board the power to recommend the state enter into tribal-state compacts with state Indian nations and tribes authorizing nations and tribes to sell adult-use marijuana.

“One more point — in our area, the tax revenue picture will be far worse because we will also have the Seneca Nation likely selling legal marijuana but without the heavy state taxes,” he said. “That will have a major impact on revenues for any local dispensaries. We’ve seen how far people will drive to save $5 on a tank of gas on the Seneca Territory. Imagine how far they’ll drive to save $50 on a bag weed.”

Lastly, Cuomo proposes new criminal sale laws. The governor said years of marijuana criminalization policies stemming from the War on Drugs have disproportionately impacted communities of color. Already, New York has taken steps to decriminalize cannabis, and Cuomo said he wants to make sure criminal penalties are thoughtfully assigned. He proposes third-degree criminal sale of marijuana for those who sell marijuana to those under the age of 21 be a class A misdemeanor. Second-degree criminal sale would encompass those who sell more than 16 ounces or 80 grams of concentrate and would be a class E felony. First-degree criminal sale would include any sales of more than 64 ounces or 320 grams of concentrate, would be a class D felony.

Borrello warns that decriminalizing marijuana sales could lead to a bigger black market than Cuomo has indicated.

“Also, because of ‘decriminalizing’ marijuana, you’re creating an incentive for the black market to grow, even with legal weed,” Borrello said. “That’s what has occurred in states like Colorado and California. The black market for marijuana is booming under legalization.”

Cuomo’s latest legalization proposal follows two unsuccessful attempts in 2019 and 2020 to fully legalize marijuana, which both fell short despite Democrats’ 2018 win of both chambers of the Legislature. In 2019, New York softened some criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana and launched a process to automatically expunge the records of thousands of individuals convicted of low-level possession crimes.

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