It’s Springtime for Cannabis in New York

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The New York City Bar Association hosted an event Thursday called “Springtime for Cannabis: 75 Years After the LaGuardia Committee Report, What’s Next for New York?” during which panelists discussed how New York should legalize, and what’s likely to change on the medical front.

The panel came on the heels of a failed effort by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to legalize cannabis for adult use through the budget, and the momentum behind the effort has slowed. Cuomo and State Sen. Liz Krueger put forth similar plans that contain several key differences, mostly around equity and vertical integration. Now, New Yorkers are left to wonder when legalization will come together, what form it will take, and what to expect from efforts to widen the medical cannabis program.

“Technically, we’ve had decriminalization of small quantities of marijuana for decades,” Krueger said. “The punchline” with decriminalization, Krueger added, is “there’s still the criminal market out there running the show.”

Melissa Moore, deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York, talked about the possibility, and perhaps need, in a place like New York, for delivery licenses and catering licenses, businesses that already exist and thrive throughout the five boroughs. Moore also noted New York’s vibrant “co-op scene.”

Regulating cannabis in such a densely populated city raises questions, for example, around home growing cannabis. What about the skunky smell in high rise apartment buildings? Cristina Buccola, a New York-based lawyer, said, “There are concerns around the way people live, whether that gives them access to grow.”

That sentiment was matched by Doug Greene, legislative director of Empire State NORML, who said “there are communities all over the city, especially in the outer boroughs” where people might want to grow “a couple of plants.” If home growing isn’t included in the final legalization bill, he said, it re-criminalizes cannabis.

Today, some of the thorniest areas of cannabis policy and regulations are around equity and taxation. “One of the places where we may have a little disagreement with my wonderful colleague is on the rate of taxation,” said Axel Bernabe, assistant counsel of Governor Cuomo for Health, referencing Krueger. “I think we have to be careful on taxes, because this is an incredibly economical, or cheap, product to make,” Bernabe said. “It’s already the drug that has the lowest cost per stoned hour.”

Equity provisions are in the spotlight as legalization becomes closer to reality in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois—all among the states that could legalize this year. “Social equity is so hard, no one has gotten it right yet,” Greene said. While jurisdictions have taken differing approaches to equity, panelists Thursday discussed incubators and low or zero interest loans, among other policy measures.

The expansion of the medical program came up, and Krueger said “that’s something that I really do want to get right,” and that she’s working off of legislative language from Senator Diane Savino and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried.

Greene said that while he’s pleased that allowing sales of cannabis flower for patients is in lawmakers’ plan, along with smoking, he’s upset that New York likely won’t have reciprocity, a real pain point for patients who travel. “I was hoping to see that in there,” he said.

The main issue, Bernabe said, “with no disrespect to our western brothers and sisters that created the roadmap to legalization,” is that some of these programs “weren’t intended really as medical programs.” He added, “We have to be careful.”

Krueger said that newcomers to the city could go through the paperwork to become a resident.

“That doesn’t help someone who is a tourist,” Greene said.

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