New York Governor Renews Push for Cannabis Legalization
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New York Governor Renews Push for Cannabis Legalization

Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed to legalize adult-use cannabis this year during his 2020 State of the State address Jan. 8.

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January 15, 2020

After last year’s failed attempt at cannabis legalization in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is renewing his push for policy reform in 2020.

The Democrat vowed to legalize adult-use cannabis this year in his Jan. 8 State of the State Address. The announcement was met with applause from state lawmakers, who tried and failed to pass the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act last summer, according to a Patch.com report.

Cuomo said during his address that it is an ethical imperative to legalize the cannabis in the state, according to the news outlet, and said he hopes to work with Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to coordinate policy reform efforts. Cuomo also called for the State University of New York to form a cannabis and hemp research center, Patch.com reported.

“I think it’s a rehash of the momentum that picked up last year,” Joshua Horn, partner at Fox Rothschild, told Cannabis Business Times.

Cuomo first announced support for adult-use legalization in December 2018, when he called on the New York Legislature to pass legislation that would regulate and tax cannabis. He included a legalization plan in his 2019 state budget, but the proposal was ultimately removed.

A revised version of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act was then reintroduced by lawmakers in May, but stalled in the legislature in June, at the end of last year’s legislative session.

The legislature did approve a cannabis decriminalization bill, however, which Cuomo signed and applauded in last week’s State of the State Address.

In October, Cuomo hosted the Regional Cannabis Regulation and Vaping Summit and met with the governors of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut in an effort to coordinate their states’ cannabis policies.

Horn interprets Cuomo’s comments during the State of the State Address to mean that he is continuing to work on this coordinated policy reform effort.

“If you think about it, it makes sense because New Jersey, on its ballot for 2020, there’s a referendum for adult-use, and I would anticipate that the citizens in New Jersey will pass that,” he said. “It’s a race to have legislation, I think, in the tri-state area.”

Horn also anticipates that any legislative effort to legalize cannabis in New York will include further criminal justice reform.

“Whatever legislation should come to pass, [Cuomo] is pushing for a social equity component … to help those who are otherwise disadvantaged to get into the business,” he said. “I would envision that may look something like what happened in Illinois. … Illinois just went live [with adult-use] a couple weeks ago, and there’s a big social equity component there. Under its legislation, if you’ve had a prior drug conviction, or you were a disproportionately affected group or in a disproportionately affected area, that would give you ‘bonus points’ on the scoring of your application for an adult-use permit. I would envision something like that would be included in whatever legislative proposal that the governor pushes forward.”

New York’s 2020 legislative session kicked off Jan. 8, and this year’s attempt at legalization remains to be seen, although Horn expects a bill to be introduced soon in the wake of Cuomo’s comments. When legislation does materialize, however, it may hit snags in the legislature again.

“I like to believe that … the significant social equity component that will be in this legislation … might help to push [lawmakers] over the edge,” Horn said. “I think New York has a budget shortfall, and the question that I always pose to people when we debate this issue is, everybody wants service, but nobody wants to pay for it. Certainly, nobody wants to pay taxes for it, so states need a new source of revenue, and the governor was pretty clear that [cannabis] is going to be something that will be highly taxed. … I think you’ll have an appeal, or should have an appeal, to the legislature at large.”

If not this year, Horn said he anticipates adult-use legalization to pass in New York within the next 18 months to two years, especially now that Illinois has legalized.

“Illinois was the first state in the country to pass adult-use through a legislative process, and it passed by having this very significant social equity [component],” he said. “I think for states that want to have adult-use cannabis programs that are maybe a bit more conservative, I think maybe that’s the way you’re going to have to go. You have to recognize those issues in order to get broader support [and] get it to pass. … Illinois formed a resolution that could pass the legislature, so it would be intuitive that other state legislatures could take the same approach.”

And while there is still no definitive timeline for legalization in New York, Horn said if New Jersey legalizes adult-use cannabis through its ballot initiative this fall, it could speed up the process across the border.

“I’d like to believe it’ll be this year, but not seeing the legislation, it’s hard to … project it,” he said. “I do believe if New Jersey’s referendum passes, you’ll see this happen pretty quickly in New York."