Public Hearing In Manhattan Discusses Proposed Bill to Legalize Marijuana

New York Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) is pushing forward with a bill that would regulate and tax marijuana for recreational purposes in the state, holding a public hearing yesterday in Manhattan to gain input from experts, advocates and opponents on the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA). However, Brad Usher, Krueger’s chief of staff, says he would be “pleasantly surprised” to see any action on the bill this coming session.

“We introduced this to start the discussion in New York,” Usher told Ganjapreneur. “There is still a lot of convincing to do. While this issue has started to see some movement on the national level and there is starting to be some bipartisan support for drug law reform I would not say that is so true in New York at this point.”

Usher said that many Democrats in the state would prefer to keep the status quo in regard to marijuana policy and that the Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to introduce the legislation for a vote.

Kruger introduced the legislation (S.6005) last December and after moving in and out of the Senate Rules Committee, the bill has yet to move out of the Senate Health Committee. A same-as bill in the Assembly (A.8341) sponsored by Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) is currently in the Assembly Codes Committee.

Assemblyman Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), chairman of the Codes Committee, said that in the past he would have said there was no chance that the MRTA would move out of the committee but “times they are a changing,” he said, quoting Bob Dylan.

“It’s possible we could look at it with a fresh pair of eyes through the experience of other states,” Lentol said. “It’s difficult to believe that in the same country we could have separate [marijuana] laws but that’s what we’re dealing with.”

Lentol didn’t rule out moving the bill out of his committee this session but noted that even if it were to pass the Assembly the likelihood of it passing the Senate and being signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is low.

“I think there is a possibility of [bringing it to a floor vote],” he said. “But it’s unlikely if the other house won’t act on it and the governor is not interested.”

Calls and emails from Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, were not returned.

If enacted the MRTA would regulate marijuana similar to alcohol in the state. It would establish a minimum age of 18 for possession and consumption of the drug but a minimum age of 21 to purchase it legally. Those caught possessing pot under the age of 18 would be given a mere violation. The act would allow possession of up to two ounces and up to six plants to be grown at a person’s home. It also provides language that would allow municipalities to opt out if they do not want marijuana dispensaries in their communities, according to the bill text.

The bill’s fiscal implications estimate annual revenues of $5 million to $22 million with an annual spending increase of $500,000 to $1.5 million by way of excise taxes on the product and fees for licenses. Those figures, based on Colorado’s marijuana revenues, could be “substantially larger” because New York’s population is greater than Colorado’s.

“Prohibition of marijuana is a policy that just hasn’t worked, no matter how you look at it, and it’s time to have an honest conversation about what we should do next,” Krueger said in a press release. “The illegal marijuana economy is alive and well, and our unjust laws are branding nonviolent New Yorkers, especially young adults, as criminals, creating a vicious cycle that ruins lives and needlessly wastes taxpayer dollars.”

According to a 2008 report from the New York Civil Liberties Union, more than 97 percent of marijuana arrests in the state are for simple possession. An American Civil Liberties Union report shows that more than 100,000 people were arrested for possession in New York in 2010 alone. Both of those studies were cited at the hearing.

“My 26 years in law enforcement, including 14 in narcotics, taught me that prohibition is the true cause of much of the personal and communal damage that has historically been attributed to drug use,” Jack Cole, a retired Detective Lieutenant with the New Jersey State Police and co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition said in his comments at the hearing. “In a regulated and controlled environment, marijuana will be safer for adult use and less accessible to our young people, we can curtail the crime associated with the illicit market, and law enforcement can focus its resources on more serious crimes.”

Usher said that no Republican lawmakers attended the hearing and the majority of the comments heard came from proponents.

“Until this starts to get real movement, the opposition…is not really participating in the discussion that much.” Usher said. “They don’t see this as an immediate likelihood in New York.”

Photo Credit: Geraint Rowland

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