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Counties push to be heard as state weighs marijuana laws

ALBANY — New York’s county governments are insisting on having a say in any legislation that would end the state prohibition on the use and sale of marijuana and regulate its retail sales.

“We’re going to be involved in this policy, but by no means are we supporting it,” Stephen Acquario, executive director of the State Association of Counties, told CNHI.

“We would strongly support local governments having a say in their communities, but it would have to be a regional level, a county level.”

Dem support

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat slated to begin his third term as the state’s chief executive in January, has signaled that the legalization of marijuana in New York is almost inevitable, now that retail pot sales are being allowed in Canada and Massachusetts.

At the statehouse in Albany, Assembly Democrats have given their strong support to a bill that would allow adult use of marijuana in New York.

In the Nov. 6 elections, Democrats picked up enough seats to have a clear majority when the 2019 legislative session opens in January, increasing the chances that marijuana legislation will become a front-burner issue.

Acquario said he has been in talks with Cuomo aides who are studying the issue.

Proposal soon

Some lawmakers and lobbyists expect Cuomo will release his own program bill, teeing up a system for decriminalizing and regulating marijuana use and sales across the state, even though such measures have already been crafted by lawmakers in both the Senate and the Assembly.

“We plan to advance a comprehensive proposal early next year,” Cuomo spokesman Tyrone Stevens said in response to questions.

He offered no information as to whether the Cuomo administration prefers a policy that would allow marijuana retail sales throughout the state or restrict them to jurisdictions where local elected officials have approved the transactions.

Stevens also did not say if Cuomo would prefer to keep any regulated retail shops with companies now licensed to offer medical marijuana or open up recreational sales to other businesses.

Potential revenue

Early projections suggest that taxes on legal marijuana sales in New York could potentially generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year in new revenue for state and local governments.

This week, Massachusetts officials reported that the state’s first two marijuana retail shops, in Northampton and Leicester, recorded $2.2 million in sales in their first week after their Nov. 20 grand openings.

That state’s Cannabis Control Commission said a total of 56,380 marijuana products were sold in the first five days at the two stores.

More than half of Massachusetts’s 351 local governments have decided to keep out marijuana retail shops and cultivation facilities.

Home rule

Because New York has traditionally been a “home-rule state,” Acquario said, there is an expectation on the part of county government officials that they will have have input in determining whether marijuana sales should be allowed in their local communities.

One of the most closely watched bills at the statehouse is one jointly sponsored by Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo).

Krueger said the legislation would allow local governments to opt in or out of allowing marijuana shops and private clubs where the drug could be consumed.

But she said that if prohibition is ended, that local governments would not be able to ban the private consumption of marijuana.

Support growing

With the Senate getting 15 new Democratic lawmakers, Krueger said, she and her colleagues, since the election, have not yet had a chance to examine the measure at a conference.

But she said Cuomo’s aides have taken interest in the bill and have been going through it “line by line.”

The senator also said polling data shows support for legalization has been growing nationally.

The Pew Research Center, a public policy think-tank, reported last month that public support for marijuana legalization has soared from 31 percent in 2001 to 62 percent as of October.

Legal in 10 states

New York has not entered the vanguard of states with the most progressive marijuana laws. Michigan this year became the 10th state in the nation to legalize marijuana for all adults.

A total of 32 states, including New York, allow people to be prescribed marijuana as a treatment for cancer and a variety of other ailments.

Low-income people enrolled in the Medicaid program who are eligible for medical-marijuana prescriptions would have their dosages covered under legislation recently proposed by Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) and Sen. Diane Savino, a Democrat who represents parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn.

Criminal justice package

Some at the statehouse are expecting the push to legalize marijuana will be wedded to efforts to end cash bail for minor offenses as part of a broad criminal-justice reform package.

While some police executives are warning that legalizing marijuana will create a new logistical nightmare for enforcing traffic laws, Krueger contended the consequences of prohibition have harmed many young African-Americans and Hispanics, who are more prone to be prosecuted for possession of small amounts of the drug.

“We spend over $600 million a year in this state for absolutely no reason,” the senator said.

She also contended that “no one gets into a bar fight after they get high. Alcohol tends to trigger anger and rage in people, and when people overuse cannabis, they want brownies and go to sleep.”

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