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Marijuana & NY state: To legalize or not to legalize?

Jonathan Reyes

The push to legalize recreational marijuana in New York state lost some steam when it wasn’t included in the state budget earlier this year. But, the issue is not dead yet.

The latest state proposal to legalize pot solves some of the concerns that doomed the plan on the table during budget talks, according to long-time advocate state Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan).

"We’ve attempted to take all of the negotiated agreements that took place during budget negotiations and expand our bill,” Krueger said.

The bill includes a proposal to create a government agency that would regulate marijuana and other cannabis-related products, and clarification of where tax revenues from sales would go. 

Gary Colmey of Rome, New York is for legalization. His group, Legalize It! CNY, promotes what it calls legalization of cannabis for thoughtful adults in New York state. He says Albany can’t get away with doing nothing in regards to legalization this time.

"Actually I’m pretty optimistic, which is going to surprise a lot of people," Colmey said. "This is our chance. This is our opportunity to fulfill the things we were promised at election time,” he said.

Colmey believes timing is everything. He says New Yorkers are already driving to Massachusetts to buy marijuana legally. And New Jersey hasn’t been able to move ahead on the issue, which opens the door for New York to establish the first markets in the region. 

"It’s not only a campaign promise. It was a promise of freedom. It was a promise of industry, a promise of patients getting better served. All three of these things, particularly the patients and the freedom issues, are not sustainable the way they are,” Colmey said.

Advocates also say legalization also can help the poor and minority communities that have been disproportionately affected by the illegal marijuana trade.

That’s why Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo), who is a sponsor of legalization legislation, believes it’s important this latest proposal addresses how tax revenue from legal marijuana business will be distributed.

"A certain percentage of it will go towards communities that have been negatively impacted by mass incarceration," Peoples-Stokes said.

At the same time supporters are working on this proposal, opposition to legalization still runs strong.

Many in law enforcement, parents groups and health organizations don’t want New York to join the other states that have legalized recreational marijuana for adults.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, is a national group lobbying New York lawmakers. Spokesman Will Jones says their biggest concern is that the commercialization of marijuana sales targets low-income communities.

"When we say we are going to regulate marijuana like alcohol, unfortunately we’re seeing the same patterns that big tobacco and alcohol has done in disproportionately targeting disadvantaged communities. We’re seeing those same patterns emerge with the marijuana industry,” Jones said.

SAM is opposed to legalization, but does support decriminalization of marijuana. The issue could stay alive in Albany’s legislative chambers until the current session ends in late June.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.