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Drug legalization and abuse topics in Albany

Brett Levin

It was a day of drug policy discussion in Albany, as lawmakers held a forum on legalizing marijuana, proposed bills to combat heroin addiction and overdoses and made progress toward a medical marijuana program.

Sponsors of a bill to legalize marijuana held a forum that in part focused on the nuts and bolts of how to implement a system that would permit sales and impose taxes on the drug.

Lawmakers heard from the former deputy commissioner in the New York City comptroller’s office, who studied the cost and benefits of permitting marijuana to be regulated, sold and taxed. Ari Hoffnung told lawmakers that more than $400 million in revenues could be generated each year, from an excise tax based on 20 percent of the price of an ounce of pot, as well as new sales taxes. He says the market could be large -- as many as two million people.

Hoffnung says $31 million could be saved in costs for arrests and court procedures in New York City alone if it’s legal to possess an ounce or less of marijuana.

But Hoffnung says he would support the bill, sponsored by Sen. Liz Krueger, even if it were revenue neutral.

“It would eliminate the unnecessary human costs of marijuana prohibition, in the form of arrests that disproportionately impact our black and Latino communities,” said Hoffnung, who says it would also end what he calls “senseless policies that criminalize” recreational users.  

Advocates believe legalization for recreational purposes may still be a few years off, but a bill to allow medical marijuana is gaining ground. A new version of the legislation has been introduced that would limit the total number of diseases that would be eligible for treatment, in an attempt to make it more palatable to some Senate Republicans, who so far have been reluctant to sign on.

Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein, who co-leads the Senate along with the GOP leader, says he believes there is enough support now to pass the measure.

“That’s something we should put on the floor and make happen before the end of the session,” Klein said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed a more limited pilot program for hospitals in New York. The administration has not yet received permission from the federal government, which it needs to begin the experiment.

But Cuomo has said if the legislature passes a larger program, he’ll take a look at it.

Meanwhile, heroin addiction and overdoses are a growing problem in New York state. Senate Republicans are holding hearings on the matter, and Democrats in the chamber are proposing a slate of new bills. They include ways to make it easier for first responders and family members of addicts to get access to Naloxone, an antidote drug that can counteract a potentially fatal overdose. They also proposed tough public service announcements and a social media campaign to warn children of the dangers, and stiffer penalties against major drug dealers.

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins calls the rise in opioid addiction a scourge.

“There’s a crisis taking place in cities and towns and neighborhoods throughout New York State,” said Stewart-Cousins, who added that it effects New Yorkers of all backgrounds, races and income levels.  

“State government, frankly, has not done enough,” Stewart-Cousins said.

Senate Republicans hope to complete a report from a series of hearings in a few weeks, and pass legislation before the session ends. Late in the day, they released a statement.

“In all of the hearings, we have received passionate testimony from New Yorkers on how this epidemic has effected them,” said Sen. Phil Boyle, chairman of the Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction. “Every personal story, testimony and idea presented has been documented for use in drafting legislation to fight this epidemic.”

Boyle says the GOP will be conducting eight more hearings in May.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.