New York state on Wednesday legalized recreational marijuana use — an effort years in the making — while setting regulations for a new industry and its taxation.
Spanning 128 pages, the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act addresses everything from enforcement and criminal justice reform to how taxes would be levied against marijuana producers and retailers and how those dollars could be spent.
On Tuesday when the Herald went to press reaction to news of the bill’s imminent passage was met largely positively in Valley Stream, with some concerns over how the additional tax dollars generated from the industry would be spent.
Valley Streamer Ellen Ingber said it was about time. “Would you rather spend time with someone who drank too much or someone who toked too much?” she said.
Megan Garcia said she hoped the bill would lead to better enforcement of public smoking and driving-while-high laws. “What people want to do in private doesn’t bother me because it doesn’t affect me,” she said. “But nothing is enforced now . . . People walk around parks and public places smoking now. People at work sit in the parking lot at work and smoke and bring that smell in with them.”
“Legalize all drugs,” Timothy Vasquez said. “Those that do them are gonna do them anyway.”
“Looking at it in the frame of social justice, I feel that it’s a good start in helping heal the communities most affected by the war on drugs,” Kevin Waszak said.
Among the major provisions in the legislation is the creation of a new agency to regulation marijuana sale. The Office of Cannabis Management and its five-person governing board would be the chief entity responsible for regulating the state’s nascent marijuana industry, setting the number of sale and use permits allowed per region, as well recommend regulations, among many other responsibilities.
Chief among the legislation's priorities is to seek redress for decades of unequal enforcement of marijuana laws in communities of color, according to Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, a Democrat from Elmont and one of the bill’s co-sponsors in the Assembly.
“Since the 1970s, we’ve been fighting this war on drugs, and it has produced unequal outcomes across different racial groups, and communities of color bear the impact of discriminatory drug laws,” she said.
In Nassau County, Black and Hispanic people make up 25 percent of the population but account for 55 percent of marijuana arrests, according to a 2018 report from the New York Civil Liberties Union. A Black or Hispanic person is four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white one, the same report read.
Upon its passage into law, the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act automatically expunged arrest records statewide for low-level marijuana offenses. “For the average person who was the victim of stop and frisk, they’re given some restitution,” Solages said, referring to a controversial policing tactic used in New York City that disproportionately affected communities of color.
Forty percent of tax dollars generated from the industry would go to a fund for social equity, which would support several support service programs such as workforce development and programs for families who have been hurt by drug enforcement laws, Solages said.
According to the bill, the Office of Cannabis Management governing board would be charged with appointing a chief equity officer, who would be responsible for developing education plans targeted at the communities most harmed by drug laws on how to obtain the licenses and permits needed to gain entry to the cannabis industry.
Additionally, the social equity fund would provide for low-cost loans and incubator programs to ease access into the business. “For any person who wants to get into the business of cannabis, they’ll be given the opportunity to do so,” Solages said.
Tax dollars from cannabis sales, she said, would also be put toward law enforcement and education programs to ensure underage children do not have access to marijuana and police are better able to enforce DUI laws.
Local governments would be eligible for 4 percent of cannabis tax revenue, and while counties would be barred from opting out of marijuana sale and use in their jurisdictions, towns and villages could, with a provision that residents could hold a referendum to override village and town officials’ decision.
While the bill’s passage was imminent, Solages said she anticipated actual sale of marijuana would not happen in New York for at least another year. Ultimately, Solages said, the bill would seek to regulate an industry that already exists, but unofficially. Already, nearby states such as New Jersey have legalized recreational marijuana use. “Keeping it unregulated,” she said, “is doing ourselves a disservice as a state.”