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Recreational marijuana is now legal in New York 

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Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill legalizing the adult use of recreational marijuana into law Wednesday, hailing it as an historic moment and saying, in a statement, that it “rights the wrongs of the past by putting an end to harsh prison sentences” and will embrace an industry that will grow the state’s economy.

The New York state Senate and Assembly approved the legislation Tuesday evening.

Opponents warned that legalizing marijuana will lead more teenagers and children to use the drug and that traffic accidents will increase.

Under the legislation passed Tuesday, anyone over 21 will be able to legally posses three ounces or less of marijuana for consumption, a provision that took effect immediately once Cuomo signed the bill. As soon as next year, New Yorkers 21 and older will be able to buy smokeable and edible forms of marijuana in retail stores. Consumers will also be able to sample the drug in tasting rooms similar to wine tasting venues.

The law also allows for limited home cultivation of cannabis plants, with a limit of 6 per person and 12 per household.

State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, has sponsored the bill for seven years.

“Today is an historic day for New Yorkers,” Krueger said. “I could not be more proud to cast my vote to end the failed policies of marijuana prohibition in our state, and begin the process of building a fair and inclusive legal market for adult-use cannabis. It has been a long road to get here, but it will be worth the wait.”

The measure contains racial justice provisions sought by Krueger and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the Assembly's bill sponsor.

Under the law, marijuana sales will be subject to a 9 percent state sales tax and a 4 percent tax, the revenues from which would be directed to local governments.  The state expects $350 million in revenue once the legal marijuana market is fully operational, with 40 percent of the money going to a community reinvestment fund for neighborhoods adversely affected by the decades-long prohibition of the drug, 20 percent to drug treatment, and 40 percent to fund public education.

Half of the licenses to grow and sell marijuana will be reserved for people from disproportionately affected communities and small farmers. They will get access to capital, including loans, grants, and incubator programs, to help them compete with the more established marijuana producers who will also receive licenses.
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Krueger said the bill creates a nation-leading model for legalization.

"New York's program will not just talk the talk on racial justice, it will walk the walk: ending the racially disparate enforcement that was endemic to prohibition, automatically expunging the records of those who were caught up in the so-called 'War on Drugs,' " Krueger said.

Krueger added that she does not use or even really like cannabis, but said she used marijuana as a teenager. She said because she is white, she was never arrested and it never hindered her progress in life.

State Sen. Jabari Brisport, who is African American, had a different experience. The Brooklyn Democrat said when he was 19, he was walking in Greenwich Village with a friend who was mistaken by a plainclothes police officer for a wanted drug dealer.

“When I asked the officer to show a badge or read my friend his rights, he pulled out his gun, pointed it directly at my face, and told me to back up,” Brisport said. “A plainclothes police officer nearly shot me in the face over weed.

“How many would-be future state senators have been accidental casualties of the war on drugs?"

Opponents included state Sen. Fred Akshar, a Binghamton-area Republican who was formerly a deputy sheriff. He said the state’s 50,000 law enforcement officers were left out of the crafting of the bill.

“There are stacks and stacks of memos of opposition from a whole, wide spectrum and range of people who represent millions of New Yorkers,” Akshar said.

Other opponents include the New York State PTA, some schools associations, and building contractors, who fear expensive lawsuits if workers who are high on marijuana get injured on the job.

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Akshar predicted that there will be more traffic accidents and fatalities due to increased use of the drug and said there is no good existing technology to detect when a driver is impaired by cannabis.

“I am afraid that if you are voting yes today, you are putting politics before people,” Akshar said.

The bill authorizes a study to find better detection technology.

State Sen. Andrew Lanza, a Republican from Staten Island, said the law will make the drug more appealing to children and sends the wrong message.

“The message clearly emanating from this room to the young people of New York is, 'If you want to use marijuana, do it,’ ” Lanza said. “My concern is that’s going to lead to high rates of cancer (and) brain damage.”

Krueger said the law will make it harder for underage New Yorkers to get the drug because it will be sold through licensed shops instead of the current black market. She hopes the law will curb New York’s largest-in-the-nation illegal marijuana market.

The measure also expands the state’s medical marijuana program, adding more illnesses that are eligible, and allowing patients access to smokeable forms of cannabis.

It also allows local governments to opt out of marijuana retail shops if the majority of people in the town, village or city, don’t want them.

Karen Dewitt is the Albany correspondent for WXXI News, a media partner of CITY. She can be reached at kdewitt@wxxi.org.

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