Legal marijuana has at last become a reality in New York following years of disagreement over how to regulate its sale and distribution.
The bill was signed into law by governor Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday after being agreed earlier in the week by the state’s legislature. It will allow New Yorkers aged 21 and over to possess up to three ounces of marijuana for their personal use. It will also open the way for licensed dispensaries to sell cannabis products.
The push to legalise marijuana was framed not only as a means to improve the state’s finances in the middle of an economic crisis but also as a racial justice imperative. Studies have shown that black and Hispanic users of marijuana were arrested at far higher rates over the years than their white counterparts.
The law will seek to address that by expunging past convictions for marijuana use as well as setting aside licences for minority groups to ensure that they benefit from what is expected to be a brisk legal marijuana business.
According to projections by the governor’s office, it could eventually contribute $350m in annual tax revenue and create up to 60,000 jobs.
“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 prioritises marginalised communities so those that have suffered the most will be the first to reap the benefits,” Cuomo said on Wednesday.
Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the New York senate majority leader, called it “a momentous first step in addressing the racial disparities caused by the war on drugs”.
New York is the 16th US state to legalise marijuana, which remains illegal at the federal level. Moves to do so in the state have been under way for years, but foundered over disagreements about such issues as what to do with the resulting revenues. Some communities and members of law enforcement also expressed deep misgivings.
Some observers said they believe the governor became more amenable to compromise on some of the outstanding issues as he seeks to fend off a furious push to remove him from office due to sexual harassment complaints and questions about his handling of the state’s nursing homes during the Covid crisis.
In recent remarks, Cuomo argued that the legalisation of marijuana in neighbouring states, including New Jersey and Massachusetts, made resistance futile. New Yorkers were going out-of-state to buy marijuana but the state was not generating tax revenue as a result.
The New York legislation will create an Office of Cannabis Management with a five-member board to regulate marijuana and cannabis products. The state will also aim to set aside 50 per cent of the licences for distributors and producers for women and minority-owned businesses, as well as distressed farmers and veterans.
Of the resulting tax revenues, 40 per cent will be dedicated to education, 40 per cent to community investment grants and 20 per cent to drug treatment efforts.
Individual municipalities will be permitted to pass their own laws forbidding dispensaries and cannabis consumption businesses within their borders if they choose.