New York state poised to legalize possession, sale of cannabis

A cannabis plant
New York would allow marijuana sales to people over the age of 21 under a bill that’s expected to pass the state Assembly.
(Los Angeles Times)

New York would legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and eventually allow marijuana sales to people over the age of 21 under a bill that’s among the nation’s most sweeping and passed the Senate with a party-line 40-23 vote Tuesday.

Once it passes the Assembly as expected, legislative leaders would send the bill to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The governor has ten days to approve or veto a bill once it lands on his desk — otherwise, the bill becomes law. He has said he will sign it.

Criminal justice reform groups and advocates for minority communities hard hit by the decades-long war on drugs have hailed the state’s bill as particularly sweeping: New York would set a target of ensuring 50% of marijuana licenses go to underrepresented communities and join a handful of states to automatically expunge past marijuana-related convictions.


“We have literally destroyed the lives of multiple thousands of people,” Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes said. “That’s what’s good about this legislation. ... We’re going to turn around the lives of some of those people and help them to be able to take care of themselves, their families and their communities.”

“I’m driving this because I want people to be free from incarceration for a drug that people in their communities use every day,” she said.

New York, which has failed to legalize marijuana for years despite Democratic control of the Legislature and governor’s office, would become at least the 16th state to legalize marijuana sales to adults. New York would become the third state where lawmakers, rather than voters, have approved legalization.

Many parts of the legislation would take effect immediately: New Yorkers could legally possess less than three ounces of marijuana outside the home — a 2019 state law removed criminal penalties for possession of two ounces.

New York would start automatically expunging records of people with past convictions for marijuana-related offenses that would no longer be criminalized. That’s a step beyond a 2019 law that expunged many past convictions for marijuana possession.

And once the bill becomes law, law enforcement in New York won’t be able to arrest or prosecute anyone for offenses that are now decriminalized. A police officer could still use the odor of burnt cannabis as a reason to suspect a driver is intoxicated, but the officer couldn’t use that smell alone as justification for searching a car for contraband.


Meanwhile, sales wouldn’t start until New York sets up regulations and a proposed cannabis board. Peoples-Stokes has estimated it could take 18 months to two years for sales to start.

Cuomo and top Democrats in the Assembly and Senate announced Saturday they reached an agreement to expand the state’s existing medical marijuana program, allow individual New Yorkers to grow six plants for personal consumption and set up a licensing and taxation system for recreational sales.

It has taken years for the state’s lawmakers to come to a consensus on how to legalize recreational marijuana amid debates over impaired driving, where to direct revenues and whether legalization would make it easier for children to access marijuana. Democrats, who now wield a veto-proof majority in the state Legislature, have made passing it a priority this year. Legalization could eventually bring the state about $350 million annually, according to Cuomo’s administration.

Local governments could opt out of retail sales.

New York would set a 9% sales tax on cannabis, plus an additional 4% tax split between the county and local government. It would also impose an additional tax based on the level of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, ranging from 0.5 cents per milligram for flower to 3 cents per milligram for edibles.