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'New Era for Marijuana Justice': New York Legalization Bill Signed Into Law

One advocate said the law is "rooted in racial and economic justice, in an effort to repair harms while also setting a new standard for anti-racist, class-conscious, and gender-expansive policymaking."

Demonstrators rallied outside New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office in Manhattan calling for the Democrat to support the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act on June 16, 2019. (Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Demonstrators rallied outside New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office in Manhattan calling for the Democrat to support the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act on June 16, 2019. (Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Just hours after New York's state lawmakers passed landmark legislation that not only legalizes recreational adult use of marijuana but also includes key equity and justice provisions, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law early Wednesday, paving the way for cannabis storefronts to start opening as early as next year.

"This law is the new gold standard for reform efforts nationwide."
—Melissa Moore, DPA

"A new era for marijuana justice is here. After years of hard work against long odds, New York has enacted one of the most ambitious marijuana legalization programs in the country," said Melissa Moore, New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), in a statement late Tuesday.

"Let's be clear—the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act is an outright victory for the communities hit hardest by the failed war on drugs," Moore said. "By placing community reinvestment, social equity, and justice front and center, this law is the new gold standard for reform efforts nationwide. Today we celebrate, tomorrow we work hard to make sure this law is implemented fairly and justly for all New Yorkers."

DPA is part of the coalition that launched the Start (Sensible Marijuana Access through Regulated Trade) SMART NY campaign in 2016. Advocates from other key groups behind the campaign—including Cannabis Cultural Association, Empire State NORML, Immigrant Defense Project, Latino Justice, and VOCAL-NY—also welcomed the passage of the MRTA, specifically its attempts to address past harms.

"The Assembly and the Senate modeled what democracy actually looks like when the legislature allows progressive movements to lead towards justice," declared Jawanza James Williams, director of organizing at VOCAL-NY. "We did not fight simply for legalization's sake, but worked for years to craft legislation rooted in racial and economic justice, in an effort to repair harms while also setting a new standard for anti-racist, class-conscious, and gender-expansive policymaking."

The MRTA allows for public possession of three ounces of cannabis or 24 grams of concentrated forms. Adults can store up to five pounds of cannabis at home and cultivate up to six plants for personal use. The law includes anti-discrimination protections for housing, education, and parental rights, and anyone with a conviction for activity that's now allowed will have their record expunged.

Those age 21 and older will be able to buy marijuana products from future licensed retailers. The state plans to prevent vertical integration through licensing with some exceptions, including for existing medical cannabis companies. There will be a 9% state tax on products, some of which will go to a community reinvestment fund, schools, drug treatment facilities, and education programs.

As Marijuana Moment details, "The legislation sets a goal of having 50% of marijuana business licenses issued to social equity applicants, defined as people from 'communities disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of cannabis prohibition' as well as minority- and women-owned businesses, disabled veterans, and financially distressed farmers."

The Legal Aid Society explained that "for decades, New York state's racist war on marijuana ensnared thousands of our clients—nearly all of whom are from Black and Latinx communities—resulting in needless incarceration and a host of other devastating consequences that inevitably arise from contacts with the criminal legal system."

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Earlier this month, the Legal Aid Society reiterated its call for lawmakers in Albany to enact the MRTA after the New York City Police Department released data showing that people of color made up more than 94% of marijuana-related arrests and summonses in 2020. The ACLU found last year that on a national scale, Black people are over three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white individuals, despite comparable usage.

NYCLU senior policy counsel Michael Sisitzky said that the lives of Black and Latinx New Yorkers "have been needlessly destroyed by racist drug policies across our state for far too long" and highlighted that the new law "will ensure a diverse and inclusive legal marijuana industry and reinvest in the communities of color that have been devastated by the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and a legacy of disproportionate arrests for drug possession."

Noting how cannabis convictions have immeasurably harmed immigrant communities across the state, Jose Chapa, senior policy associate at the Immigrant Defense Project, celebrated that "New Yorkers seeking status or immigration relief will be able to vacate old marijuana convictions to clear the path to become residents and citizens, thanks to the passage of the MRTA."

In a statement Tuesday, Cuomo thanked state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-35), Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-83), "and the many legislators who worked tirelessly on this issue for securing passage of this historic legislation," adding that he looked forward to signing it.

"For too long the prohibition of cannabis disproportionately targeted communities of color with harsh prison sentences," the governor said, "and after years of hard work, this landmark legislation provides justice for long-marginalized communities, embraces a new industry that will grow the economy, and establishes substantial safety guards for the public."

While marijuana is still illegal under federal law, New York's measure is part of a national trend of state-level legalization and justice-focused reforms. Bloomberg reported that "New York is the 16th state to decide to let adults use cannabis, though marijuana stores probably won't open in New Jersey until next year, and South Dakota's law is under appeal. New Mexico's legislature is on track to pass its bill this week."

That progress comes after years of tireless work by organizers and supportive lawmakers, DPA executive director Kassandra Frederique noted Tuesday evening.

"This day is certainly a long time coming," she said. "We went from New York City being the marijuana arrest capital of the country to today New York State coming through as a beacon of hope, showing the rest of the country what comprehensive marijuana reform—centered in equity, justice, and reinvestment—looks like."

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