NEW YORK — After years of attempts, recreational marijuana is now legal in New York after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law Wednesday that criminal justice advocates have called the “gold standard” for legalization.
“This is a historic day,” Cuomo wrote on Twitter announcing the news. He pointed out that the bill “creates automatic expungement of previous marijuana convictions that would now be legal.”
New York joins more than a dozen other states that have legalized cannabis, including neighboring New Jersey.
After a Tuesday debate to hash out the final details, legalization passed the Senate with a party-line 40-23 vote and the Assembly with a 100 – 49 vote.
New Yorkers won’t be able to immediately purchase marijuana; the state still needs to set up rules around sales and a proposed cannabis board. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes estimated Friday it could take 18 months to two years for sales to start.
Marijuana sales could bring the state, reeling from the monetary impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, about $350 million annually.
Estimates by the trade publication Marijuana Business Daily show New York could become the largest on the East Coast — generating a potential $2.3 billion in annual sales by its fourth year.
New York will set a 9% sales tax on cannabis plus an additional 4% county and local tax and another tax based on the level of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
Money from sales could also be used to help the communities disproportionately impacted by years of unequal police enforcement of marijuana laws, Sen. Liz Krueger, Senate sponsor of the bill and chair of the Senate’s finance committee, said.
The legislation provides protections for cannabis users in the workplace, housing, family court and in schools, colleges and universities, and sets a target of providing half of marijuana licenses to individuals from underrepresented communities.
New York will start automatically expunging the criminal records of individuals with certain past marijuana-related convictions, and law enforcement in the state won’t be able to arrest or prosecute individuals for possession of marijuana up to 3 ounces. That’s a step beyond a 2019 law that expunged many past convictions for marijuana possession and reduced the penalty for possessing small amounts.
The law also allows using cannabis in public spaces, though New Yorkers can’t smoke or vape marijuana in locations prohibited by state law, including workplaces, colleges and universities, hospitals and within 100 feet of a school.
The state will provide loans, grants and incubator programs to encourage participation in the cannabis industry by people from minority communities, as well as small farmers, women and disabled veterans.
Opponents of legalization include law enforcement organizations and groups representing parents.
“We are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the serious crisis of youth vaping and the continuing opioid epidemic, this harmful legislation is counterintuitive,” several organizations wrote in an open letter earlier this month.
New York officials plan to conduct a study that will examine the extent that cannabis impairs driving, and whether it depends on factors like time and metabolism.
The new law allows cities, towns and villages to opt out of allowing adult-use cannabis retail dispensaries or on-site consumption licenses by passing a local law by Dec. 31, 2021, or nine months after the effective date of the legislation. They cannot opt out of legalization.