New York State

Cuomo’s proposed pot amendments don’t appease advocates

Activists said the governor made some welcome tweaks to his plan, but the changes didn’t go far enough.

A New Yorker holding a joint during the Cannabis Parade.

A New Yorker holding a joint during the Cannabis Parade. a katz/Shutterstock

In the first of his 30-day budget amendments, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made some notable changes to his proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in New York. But legalization and criminal justice advocates said the changes were only an incremental improvement and didn’t go far enough.

Although he has not released the bill language yet, Cuomo announced three major changes to his plan to legalize marijuana that was part of his executive budget proposal. The governor clarified how money from a social equity fund would be used. He also would now allow pot delivery services and would recategorize some marijuana-related crimes. The changes address some of the social equity concerns from legalization activists and brings Cuomo’s proposal slightly closer to the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act proposed by state Sen. Liz Krueger and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes. “I am glad to see that the Governor is indicating a willingness to adjust his approach on marijuana legalization,” Krueger said in a statement while declining to comment further before reading the legislative language. At a press conference Monday, when he first said the amendments were on the way, Cuomo said of his talks with the state Legislature: “We don’t have an agreement yet but I believe we’re making progress.”

The first proposed amendment from the governor lays the groundwork for how $100 million in social equity funds would be allocated. Cuomo had previously promised to set aside $100 million over four years in tax revenue collected from legal pot for community reinvestment grants. For the first time, Cuomo clarified that these grants could be used for job placement services, adult education as well as housing and nutrition services, which were each included in the Legislature’s proposal. However, state lawmakers wanted 50% of the tax revenue from marijuana sales to go to the equity fund, which would go well beyond the governor’s proposal.

Cuomo’s original proposal last month provided few details about how that money would actually be spent, and who would be in charge of handing it out. By comparison, the state Legislature’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act included provisions about who would oversee the money and what sorts of programs would qualify for the funds.

Differences still exist in who would oversee the money in the social equity fund. Under Cuomo’s new proposal, the Department of State would allocate the funds through grants administered by Empire State Development, in collaboration with other state agencies and departments. By comparison, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act would create a 15-person executive steering committee, which would include the chief equity officer of the Office of Cannabis Management (which would also be created by the bill), to govern and administer grants. The committee would include members from multiple state agencies and departments as well as appointees from different elected officials.

The next proposed change from the governor would enable home delivery of marijuana, something that his original budget proposal from last month did not include. Delivery licenses were already a part of the proposed Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. In fact, delivery permits were included in Cuomo’s executive budget proposal last year, with language referencing home delivery as part of his plan to legalize marijuana. That language was removed this year prior to Cuomo’s announced amendments. Nicole Leblond, a spokesperson for the governor, said that the original proposal from this year “made several attempts to streamline the number of provisions in statute and leave more flexibility and discretion to the Board in regulation.” She added that the original proposal did not preclude the creation of delivery licenses.

The amendment announcement made no mention of on-site consumption licenses, which similarly were included in previous executive proposals but were excluded this year. Legalization advocates lamented the omission. “There needs to be on-site consumption licenses, a safe place for people to go,” Eli Northrup, policy counsel at the Bronx Defenders, told City & State. Leblond offered the same explanation for why on-site consumption licenses were removed from the governor’s proposal, and similarly said that nothing in the legislative language would preclude their creation.

Lastly, Cuomo’s amendments would tweak some of the penalties for the criminal sale of marijuana under a new legal framework. Most notably, the governor changed the sale of pot to someone under 21 from a Class D felony to a Class A misdemeanor, as it appears in the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. He also said he would reduce criminal sales in the first and second degrees to lesser felonies than he originally proposed. “By reducing criminal penalties and allowing marijuana delivery services, the Governor has taken steps to address decades of disparate marijuana criminalization,” Melissa Moore, New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “There’s no question this shift comes in response to powerful organizing for marijuana justice across the state and in the Legislature.”

Peoples-Stokes similarly applauded the steps taken by the governor, but acknowledged that there’s still a gap between her Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act and the executive plan. “I’m pleased to see the Governor’s 30-day amendments moving in the right direction towards stronger community reinvestment, more sensible criminal penalties, and a cannabis delivery option,” Peoples-Stokes said in a statement. “It’s promising, but we still have a ways to go.”

Northrup said that these amendments should have been included in Cuomo’s legalization plan from the start. “We shouldn’t have had to push him on this,” Northrup said, while acknowledging that Cuomo is moving in the right direction. He pointed out that many concerns that he and other advocates expressed still remain unaddressed by the governor. For example, Northrup took issue with what he considered to be an overall increased level of criminalization in the governor’s proposal, such as making the possession of any amount of illicit marijuana a misdemeanor. He also pointed out that the amendments don’t establish a process for automatic sealing prior marijuana-related crimes, something that was part of the legislative proposal. “A lot remains to be done,” Northrup said.

Moore and Northrup both said that passage of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act is still the best course of action, which Moore called “the gold standard.” It’s a sentiment shared by others who have been fighting for legalization for years. “While we are proud that our collective demands for true community investment and an end to criminalization have pushed the Governor to make changes to his proposal, it is not enough,” Marvin Mayfield, statewide organizer at the Center for Community Alternatives, said in a statement. “Impacted people and advocates spent years crafting the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act and we continue to demand its swift passage.”