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Cuomo renews push to legalize recreational marijuana in New York. What you need to know

David Robinson
New York State Team

The latest push to legalize recreational marijuana in New York kicked off Wednesday with Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing his third attempt since 2019 to allow adults to use the drug.

Cuomo's proposal called for the creation of a new state Office of Cannabis Management that would issue licenses for producers, distributors and retailers. It would also oversee the state's medical marijuana and hemp industries.

"I think this should have been passed years ago," Cuomo said during a press briefing, referring to legalized marijuana sales.

"I think too many people have been imprisoned and incarcerated and punished; too many of those people are Black, Latino and poor," he added.

Cuomo also described the legal weed push as a means to help offset the projected $15 billion state budget deficit this year connected to the COVID-19 pandemic's economic fallout.

Addressing the potential sales tax revenues from marijuana, Cuomo said, "This is a year when we do need the funding, and a lot of New Yorkers are struggling."

Protesters urging legislators to pass Marijuana legislation lay on the floor outside the Assembly Chamber doors at the state Capitol Wednesday, June 19, 2019, in Albany, N.Y.

But an adviser to the governor promptly clarified it would be several years before New York began collecting about $300 million per year in marijuana sales tax revenue once the program was fully operational.

Lawmakers and advocates on both sides of the legal weed divide have been gearing up for the latest battle over legalizing marijuana use for adults in 2021, which will unfold during the Legislature session that began Wednesday.

Cuomo is expected to provide further details about his latest proposal for legalizing recreational marijuana as part of the State of State address Monday.

Meanwhile, New Jersey’s vote last year to allow recreational marijuana only ramps up the pressure on the Empire State, which many experts see as the crown jewel in the legalization movement’s decades-long push to overturn federal cannabis prohibition one state at a time.

More: Q&A: New York's new cannabis czar calls recreational marijuana the 'right thing to do'

More: New York tries to restore order to CBD market, clears way for hemp-infused drinks

Why legal recreational marijuana failed in NY previously

marijuana flower buds in glass jars

Legal weed is far from a sure thing this year in New York. Sweeping legislation seeking to legalize and tax cannabis has failed the past two years under pressure from law enforcement, physicians and educational groups.

In 2019, New York approved a law that decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana after the bid to legalize recreational marijuana fell apart.

Last fall, the medical societies of New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which jointly represent tens of thousands of doctors, also expressed new concerns about health risks related to legalizing marijuana during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a joint statement on Oct. 30, the groups noted smoking or vaping marijuana can increase patient risk for more severe complications from COVID-19.

“Additionally, there are concerns about the secondary effects on adults and young people from COVID-19 regarding the increased rates of addiction due to the stress of isolation, boredom and decreased access to recovery resources,” the groups said.

The comments built upon the physician groups’ long-standing position urging states to delay cannabis legalization. They seek to allow for further studies in existing legal weed states on potential negative impacts, such as emergency department visits and hospitalizations, drugged driving arrests, and the prevalence of psychiatric and addiction disorders.

“The cost to the public health system from cannabis use will likely far outweigh any revenues that states secure by legalizing marijuana,” the groups said.

But in many ways, some pro-cannabis activists and Democratic lawmakers have derailed New York’s prior adult-use cannabis legislation efforts.

The unexpected opposition has asserted that Cuomo, a Democrat, rejected measures intended to ensure enough marijuana tax revenue and business opportunities flow to communities of color disproportionately harmed by racially biased enforcement of marijuana laws.

Cuomo’s legal weed bill last year included measures promoting social equity and minority ownership of businesses, but some lawmakers seek legislation that sets aside specific percentages of marijuana tax dollars for communities of color.

The prospect that marijuana taxes would be used to help plug a multi-billion-dollar state budget hole due to COVID-19 — rather than communities of color harmed by the War on Drugs — evoked memories of prior pushback over plans to use legal weed money to fund the New York City subway repairs.

Still, Cuomo, who initially opposed legalized marijuana in 2011 but softened his stance as more states allowed it, had appeared to be inching towards a potential compromise with lawmakers over marijuana revenues last year before COVID-19 hit.

On Feb. 20, for example, Cuomo announced he planned to visit states that have legalized marijuana to learn best practices to aid in the legislative debate, only to scrap the travel as coronavirus cases began climbing in March.

Now, New Jersey’s approval of legal weed is poised to renew the debate in New York over all aspects of its prior marijuana legislation, including the tax rate.

For example, New Jersey could have among the lowest legal weed tax rate in the United States, with purchases taxed at 7%.

In contrast, Cuomo’s legislation last year called for the sale of marijuana by any entity to a retail dispensary to be taxed at a rate of 20% of the invoice price, with an additional 2% tax rate going to counties or cities with a population of a million or more in which the retail dispensary is located.

Cultivation of cannabis in New York would also be taxed at the rate of $1 per dry gram of cannabis flower, 25 centers per dry weight gram of cannabis trim, and 14 cents per gram of wet cannabis, according to Cuomo’s bill last year.

Advocates react to new NY recreational marijuana battle

In a statement Wednesday, Kevin Sabet, president of anti-marijuana group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, criticized Cuomo for pushing legal weed legislation during public health crises.

“In the midst of an unprecedented respiratory pandemic and overdose epidemic, it is a terrible idea to commercialize high potency, dangerous pot products," Sabet said.

"It is a risky proposition for New York, and it won’t make anyone other than a few investors rich," he added.

New York Cannabis Growers & Processors Association President Allan Gandelman, however, praised Cuomo's comments on Wednesday.

“There simply is no more time to wait as New Yorkers have watched other states and now our neighbors legalize adult use cannabis," Gandelman said in a statement.

"We have a historic moment to legalize cannabis in a way that brings new opportunities for communities across the state and acts as a catalyst for economic revitalization," he added.

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David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached atdrobinson@gannett.com and followed on Twitter:@DrobinsonLoHud