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New York Cannabis Prohibition Goes Up In Smoke: MRTA, the bill to legalize the responsible adult-use of cannabis, passes.  

Albany, New York: After first being introduced in 2013, S.854A/A.1248A, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), passed in the Senate and Assembly on Tuesday night, and Governor Andrew Cuomo signed it into law Wednesday morning.

“I just signed legislation legalizing adult-use cannabis,” scandal-plagued Governor Cuomo said in a statement. “The bill creates automatic expungement of previous marijuana convictions that would now be legal. This is a historic day.”

His sentiments hepeated [sic] those of Senator Liz Krueger. She co-sponsored the bill with Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes. “Today is a historic day for New Yorkers,” Krueger says. “It has been a long road to get here, but it will be worth the wait. The bill we have held out for will create a nation-leading model for legalization.”

Majority Leader Peoples-Stokes said that cannabis legalization in New York marks the end of a kafkaesque era of racist enforcement of cannabis laws, mostly targeted against communities of color. 

“Today we’re reversing 90 years of prohibition,” Peoples-Stokes said just before the Assembly passed the bill late Tuesday night. “The last time New York state did anything like this was when we reversed the prohibition of alcohol. That was in 1933; here we are in 2021.”

This legislation championed by Senator Krueger, Assembly Majority Leader Peoples-Stokes, Empire State chapter of the National Reformation of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Drug Policy Alliance, and other advocates embodies most legalization advocates core-principles of consumer rights and marijuana justice.

For decades, activists have worked towards the ultimate passing of this bill. The result indeed shows that grassroots activism can make a huge difference. The MRTA is affectionately and colloquially referred to in advocacy circles as “The Greene Bill” for late New York-based cannabis activist and Empire State NORML Director Doug Greene. Known for his motto, “Cannabis Excelsior,” Greene was a fixture in Albany at rallies and meetings. 

As home to the largest market of cannabis consumers in the nation, the improvements legislators incorporated into the bill will help protect millions of New Yorkers’ rights.

This legislation appears to respect the balance between the rights and freedoms of cannabis consumers and restorative marijuana justice. The provisions provide authorizing personal cultivation, or “home grow,” automatic expungement of past cannabis-related criminal records, onsite consumption, and delivery. This legislation can make New York the leading model in adult-use legalization in the nation. 

“Empire State NORML is ecstatic that many of the policies we’ve been fighting for, such as home cultivation, automatic vacatur, onsite consumption spaces, social equity funding, and protections against consumer discrimination, are in play. The fight for patient and consumer rights is not over; it’s just beginning. We look forward to working with the Office of Cannabis Management (“OCM”) to ensure that the consumers are protected,” said Troy Smit, Deputy Director of Empire State NORML & Founder of Long Island NORML.

“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” Smit continued. “It’s taken a great amount of work and perseverance by activists, patients, and consumers, to go from being the cannabis arrest capital of the world to lead the world with a legalized market dedicated to equity, diversity, and inclusion. The bill might not be the perfect piece of legislation, but today, cannabis consumers can hold their heads high and smell the flowers. Senator Krueger and Assembly Majority Leader Peoples-Stokes have laid the groundwork for marijuana justice and a consumer-centric industry. Now, it’s time for the Office of Cannabis Management to take up their torch and implement regulations that protect patient and consumer rights.”  

David Holland, Executive & Legal Director, Empire State NORML, who works tirelessly, often pro-bono, on behalf of incarcerated, non-violent cannabis “criminals” was as equally enthusiastic as Smit, “New York’s anticipated legalization of cannabis propels it again to a leadership role in the nation. Under the MRTA, once persecuted and criminalized, people, cultures, and communities will be prioritized through job creation and investment opportunity to rebuild that which was so tragically torn apart by the false and failed War on Drugs. Cannabis is not only a valid and viable medicine but an industry built around it will help these people and communities heal as the State moves forward on a more equitable and enlightened path to progress.”

Melissa Moore, New York State Director of Drug Policy Alliance, reiterates NORML’s leadership’s sentiments. The organization was not on board with previous legislation and fought hard to make it as inclusive and social justice-driven as possible. 

New York officially decriminalized in 1977. Possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana is an infraction that generates a $100 fine.

However, possession in public view remained a misdemeanor. Civil rights advocates believe that this loophole is used to rationalize the racial disparities and unfair arrests, particularly in communities of color.

“Through this sweeping legislation, New York is delivering reforms that place community reinvestment, social equity, and justice at the core of the law. Marijuana prohibition has ruined lives and disproportionately devastated Black and Brown people. That’s why we’ve been fighting to ensure legalization is done right and reinvests back into these communities that the war on drugs has most harmed. We went from New York City being the marijuana arrest capital of the country to today New York State showing the rest of the country what comprehensive marijuana reform looks like,” says Moore. 

According to the bill, cannabis can be legally smoked anywhere that cigarettes can.

Ryan Lepore, Interim Executive Director of NYC NORML & Board Member of Empire State NORML, says, “For the past few years, cannabis legalization in New York has been an elusive fantasy to some, and for others, a tireless journey that began decades before a cannabis industry existed. Passing legislation that is representative of justice instead of solely its economic opportunity is undoubtedly a victory for both the New York and the nationwide cannabis community. As the MRTA’s passage serves as a desirable starting point to legitimize existing consumers and legacy operators, we must continue to advocate and ensure our State’s incoming regulatory process truly provides regenerative, restorative, and equitable opportunities for our diverse legacy and consumer population.”

Mary Kruger, Executive Director of ROC NORML and Board Member of Empire State NORML, agrees, “We are excited and optimistic about the negotiations that have been reached thus far. The key components we’ve been fighting for –justice, equity, and reinvestment– are all intricately woven into the fabric of this legislation. We were never fighting for legalization by any means necessary. We were always fighting for smart legalization that protects consumers and begins to right the wrongs and harms of marijuana prohibition. This bill does just that. However, there will always be work for us to do when fighting for marijuana justice and consumer rights.” 

“The fight for marijuana justice in New York has been led by dedicated and tireless social justice warriors, patients, and consumer advocates. In the past few years, advocates have had to deal with the pressure and negotiations of proposed legislation other than the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA). It became quickly clear that the dire need for just, equitable, inclusive, diverse, and consumer-centered legislation could only be found through the MRTA sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Senator Liz Kruger and was worth the wait. This bill is a solid foundation for which we, as advocates, must hold the State accountable for and continue to help shape. As we move forward, our local communities must have a voice in how the office of cannabis management carries out reinvestment, economic opportunities, and justice. Our work is never over, but we will take this moment to celebrate a victory,” says Penelope Hamilton Crescibene, Acting Executive Director of WNY NORML

Everyone does not laud the bill and its implications. The main detractor of adult-use legalization and medical marijuana alike, Dr. Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), pronounced, “First and foremost, we are proud of the work our coalition of public health and safety professionals, teachers, parents, and concerned citizens put forth in this fight. When the idea of legalization was floated several years ago, we were told legalization would fly through the legislature. Against all odds and despite being drastically outspent, we successfully defeated it year after year. We perhaps needed a political distraction during an extremely challenging year. Regrettably, the governor and legislative leaders finally caved to the interests of Big Marijuana over the best interest of New Yorkers.

“This bill will lead to greater second and third-hand smoking harms and will expose small children to levels of THC that are damaging to their brains. Even if you believe in adults’ right to smoke a joint, this is a terrible bill. Public possession of up to roughly two hundred and fifty joints will be legal, which is more than double the allowable amount that is legal in the overwhelming majority of states with a ‘legal’ market. Incredibly, the use of marijuana will now be legal in areas where cigarette smoking and vaping are currently banned.

“This bill will exacerbate our State’s drug crisis. It does not implement any limit on THC potency, a commonsense public health guardrail that many states, including Colorado, are considering following the leadership of places like Vermont. The increased use of today’s highly potent forms of marijuana, such as vapes and concentrates which commonly feature upwards of 99% pure THC, has been linked to potentially severe damages to mental health,” he stated. 

Gov. Cuomo, who dragged his feet over cannabis legalization, outwardly disagrees with SAM and is looking forward to the economic benefits legalization will bring to New York. “This landmark legislation embraces a new industry that will grow the economy and establishes substantial safety guards for the public.”

According to Will Yackowicz at Forbes, it will take about 18 months for adult-use sales to go into effect. However, estimates put the State’s total cannabis market at $4.6 billion in annual sales (including the State’s illicit market). The legal cannabis industry is expected to capture $1.2 billion in sales by 2023 and $4.2 billion by 2027. 


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