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Is New York Moving Towards Cannabis Legalization?

New York is one step closer to allowing the possession and use of marijuana as Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo recently unveiled a state Health Department report recommending cannabis legalization. Addressing reporters in Brooklyn on Friday, Governor Cuomo referred to the fact that neighboring states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey have pursued cannabis legalization, claiming, “The situation on marijuana is changing.”

Although Mr. Cuomo did not outright say that he would back cannabis legalization he did speak about possible plans to do so, saying, “now you have to answer specifics. Who sells it? Where do they sell it? What quantity can you sell? That to me, the devil’s in the details. And to come up with a full program, that’s what we have to answer.”

Up until recently, Cuomo and his administration referred to marijuana as a "gateway drug.” However, the Governor recently tasked the state Health Department with undertaking a study to determine whether or not the state should consider cannabis legalization.

The department’s 75-page report, released on Friday, recommends the creation of a regulated market in the Empire State, saying the "positive effects" of cannabis legalization "outweigh the potential negative impacts,” and “areas that may be a cause for concern can be mitigated with regulation and proper use of public education that is tailored to address key populations.”

Cannabis Legalization Report Recommendations

The Health Department’s report claims that such a move would bring tax benefits, health benefits, and a reduction in arrests of minority residents, who are disproportionately affected by the enforcement of current marijuana laws. The report recommended a sales tax on marijuana of between seven and ten percent and a one-ounce purchase limit.

The report also says studies reveal that regulating marijuana reduces opioid prescriptions and deaths, criminalization of marijuana does not curb use, and there has been no increase in violent crime or property crime rates in the vicinity of medical marijuana dispensaries.

According to the report, "numerous NYS agencies and subject matter experts in the fields of public health, mental health, substance use, public safety, transportation, and economics worked in developing this assessment. No insurmountable obstacles to regulation of marijuana were raised." and "Regulation of marijuana benefits public health by enabling government oversight of the production, testing, labeling, distribution, and sale of marijuana. The creation of a regulated marijuana program would enable NYS to better control licensing, ensure quality control and consumer protection, and set age and quantity restrictions."

New York for Drug Policy Alliance head Chris Alexander, said the report’s release “cannot be understated. We know that he is using this as his pivot point. He needed some kind of epiphany that was based in something.”

Mr. Alexander also claims that New York benefited from lessons learned in other states which have instituted cannabis legalization over the past decade such as Oregon, where high taxation allowed black market prices to undercut licensed retailers.

Additional Steps Being Taken Towards Cannabis Legalization

Other incremental but substantial steps have been taken to address cannabis laws in the state. On Thursday, the day before Cuomo’s press conference, the Health Department enacted emergency rules allowing the use of medical cannabis for any condition that would normally be treated with prescription opioids. Meanwhile, back in May, at its annual convention, the New York Democratic Party adopted a resolution endorsing cannabis legalization.

Last week, the state Department of Financial Services published a statement encouraging banks to do business with licensed cannabis businesses. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the NYPD to stop arresting people for smoking marijuana in public. In fact, several borough district attorneys said they would stop prosecuting such cases.

New York Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand are sponsoring congressional legislation to reform federal cannabis rules. Cuomo said he does not expect to see cannabis legalization legislation before 2019. The total market size is expected to be as high as $3.5 billion per year, according to industry experts.

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