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New York Legalizes Cannabis for Recreational Use

Alyse Greer, PLI Staff Reporter

On March 31, Governor Cuomo signed legislation legalizing the production, distribution and adult use of cannabis in New York. More than removing marijuana from New York’s list of controlled substances, the new legislation seeks to create economic opportunities and social equity for members of communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the previous prohibition on marijuana.

According to the press release, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (S.854-A/A.1248-A) “establishes the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM); expands New York’s existing medical marijuana program; establishes a licensing system; and creates a social and economic equity program encouraging individuals disproportionately impacted by cannabis enforcement to participate in the industry.” A five-member board will oversee the OCM, which will operate as an independent branch within the New York State Liquor Authority.

“This is a historic day in New York—one that rights the wrongs of the past by putting an end to harsh prison sentences, embraces an industry that will grow the Empire State’s economy, and prioritizes marginalized communities so those that have suffered the most will be the first to reap the benefits,” said Governor Cuomo.

A 2018 study conducted by the NY Department of Health determined that the benefits of legalizing adult-use cannabis outweighed the drawbacks, and that criminalizing marijuana failed to achieve intended public health and safety goals while also leading to “unjust arrests and convictions, particularly in communities of color.”

Anyone who was previously convicted for a marijuana offense that does not violate the new laws would have their records expunged or be resentenced according to the new cannabis penalty framework (which has yet to be released). In addition, the department will encourage individuals from communities that have been “disproportionately impacted by the policies of prohibition” to apply for licenses, with the goal of awarding 50% of licenses to such applicants. A portion of sales tax revenue generated from the sale of cannabis and cannabinoid hemp (CBD) will be reinvested in minority communities.

As stated in the press release, in addition to licensing, taxation, and reforming criminal penalties, the new legislation will focus heavily on “strict quality control, public health and consumer protections.”

“The focus must be on the actual constraints on commercial activity” said Jim O’Reilly, Professor of Public Health Policy at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine and co-author of Legal Guide to the Business of Marijuana: Cannabis, Hemp and CBD Regulation. “In fact,” he continued, “lawfully serving the needs of cannabis consumers is a commendable business initiative.”

Adults—that is, age 21 and over—may legally possess up to 3 ounces of cannabis and 24 grams of cannabis concentrate outside of their homes; within their homes, adults may own 3 mature plants and 3 immature plants—per household, there is a 6 mature plant and 6 immature plant maximum.

While there is a blanket “adult use is legal” rule that cannot be overwritten, cities, towns, and villages in the state of New York may prohibit the establishment of adult-use cannabis retail dispensaries or on-site consumption licenses. These jurisdictions must pass local laws by December 31, 2021 or nine months after the effective date of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act.

The new OCM website launched on Friday, April 2. Website visitors can learn more about medical cannabis, CBD, and municipal opt-out. Further information about taxation and licensing is forthcoming. Additionally, prospective CBD retailers, distributors, and processors can learn more by visiting the New York Department of Health’s dedicated Cannabinoid Hemp Program website.

For more information about representing marijuana clients, definitions of marijuana and other cannabis products, and a review of the policy and political issues that have led to the controversy and uncertainty of the current environment, check out the Legal Guide to the Business of Marijuana: Cannabis, Hemp and CBD Regulation (2020 Edition), available from PLI Press.

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