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Cuomo Changes His Marijuana Legalization Plan Following Widespread Criticism

Governor Andrew Cuomo is making changes to his marijuana legalization proposal after it was slammed by state lawmakers and legalization advocates for not doing enough to address New Yorkers who have been disproportionately harmed by the drug’s prohibition.

Cuomo has not yet released a new version of the bill but said Tuesday that it will include more specific information about how the funds generated through marijuana taxes will be used, and changes to how criminal charges will be enforced with regard to the improper sale of cannabis.

“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,” Cuomo said in a statement.

The governor has pledged to put $100 million of the revenue generated in the first four years marijuana is legal into a social equity fund and to continue to add $50 million annually to the fund after that.

Critics previously said that they prefer the state legislature’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act to the governor’s legalization proposal, in part because the MRTA includes more specific and binding language indicating how social equity funds will be used.

Under the governor’s legalization plan, local governments and nonprofit organizations would be able to apply for money from his social equity fund to invest in a wide range of community revitalization efforts. Cuomo said these could include employment programs, adult education, mental health care, and legal assistance to help people facing barriers to entry to the legal cannabis market, among other services.

“This is definitely a shift from [Cuomo] that was prompted by the powerful organizing the Start SMART NY Coalition is doing and he felt he had to respond to that,” said Melissa Moore, director of the New York state chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance. “But what he’s laid out in the press release still falls short of what’s in MRTA.”

Moore noted that the MRTA would set aside 50% of any cannabis revenue for social equity funds, rather than capping it at a fixed dollar amount. She said that’s especially important given that a new independent economic analysis projects that legal marijuana could eventually generate billions of dollars a year in New York—far more than the $300 million a year the governor included in his funding breakdown.

One of the biggest critiques of Cuomo’s original proposal was that it would still criminalize certain cannabis offenses in a way that would continue to leave people of color vulnerable to uneven enforcement of the law. Cuomo is now amending his bill to reduce the penalties for certain offenses. For instance, he is making the sale of marijuana to someone under 21 a misdemeanor, rather than a felony.

Eli Northrup, an attorney with the Bronx Defenders who raised concerns about Cuomo’s initial proposal, said these changes look promising, although he hasn’t seen the new version of the bill. But he added that more remains to be done.

“It’s still a misdemeanor to possess any amount of illicit cannabis under his proposal,” noted Northrup. “If you happen to buy a joint from someone who doesn’t have a license under his proposal you could face a year in jail and these amendments don’t appear to have changed that.”

He added that the governor’s announcement also doesn’t address the issue of police being able to use the smell of marijuana to justify searches, something the MRTA would explicitly ban.

The MRTA also seeks to address the consequences people face as a result of past criminal charges for cannabis in the context of family court, employment, housing and immigration. There’s no indication from the governor’s announcement that such provisions will be added to his bill.

And while the governor is now adding a license for cannabis delivery to his proposal, he did not say he would include a license for businesses where people can consume cannabis onsite—something Northrup and Moore say is a problem because public housing residents can’t smoke at home.

Asked for comment on these concerns, the governor’s office said Cuomo is open to further reforms. “This is a budget proposal that will be further negotiated with the legislature,” said Rich Azzopardi, senior advisor to the governor. “If there are additional concerns or issues raised, we’ll certainly review them.”

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