Thorny ques­tions threaten to slow le­gal pot in state

The Record (Troy, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By DAVID KLEPPER

AL­BANY, N.Y. >> Ef­forts to le­gal­ize mar­i­juana for recre­ational use in New York are gain­ing steam, and Gov. An­drew Cuomo pre­dicts a bill will pass this year. But don’t ex­pect to see pot shops open­ing up from Brook­lyn to Buf­falo any­time soon.

While there’s broad agree­ment on the idea of le­gal­iza­tion, there’s no con­sen­sus on a long list of de­tails that must be fig­ured out first.

Taxes and reg­u­la­tions must be ap­proved. Rules for li­cens­ing re­tail­ers must be writ­ten. A new gov­ern­ment en­tity may have to be cre­ated. Lo­cal gov­ern­ments will have to be brought in. Even after a bill passes, it could take a year or more for any pot shops to open, based on what’s hap­pened in other states and New York’s own ex­pe­ri­ence with med­i­cal mar­i­juana.

While reach­ing a com­pro­mise will prove dif­fi­cult, law­mak­ers in New York say they have the ad­van­tages of see­ing what’s worked and what hasn’t in other states that have elim­i­nated the ban. That grow­ing list in­cludes Wash­ing­ton, Colorado, Cal­i­for­nia and now neigh­bor­ing Mas­sachusetts.

“There does seem to be this air of in­evitabil­ity,” said Sen. James Sk­oufis, a Demo­crat from the Hud­son Val- ley’s Or­ange County. “But we need to make sure we do it right.”

LE­GAL­IZE WHAT, EX­ACTLY?

First off, law­mak­ers will have to set the broad pa­ram­e­ters of the law. All le­gal­iza­tion pro­pos­als so far would elim­i­nate le­gal penal­ties for the adult use of mar­i­juana in a pri­vate home. Al­most all would per­mit re­tail shops where peo­ple could buy the prod­uct.

But what about Am­s­ter­dam-style pot cafes, where users could par­take on site, while per­haps en­joy­ing food, a cup of cof­fee or even an al­co­holic bev­er­age? Would peo­ple be al­lowed to con­sume mar­i­juana out­side? In their cars? At ho­tels? While chil­dren are present? Should lo­cal gov­ern­ments be able to pro­hibit pot shops in a cer­tain town or county?

States have taken their own ap­proach to each ques­tion. Cal­i­for­nia al­lows pot cafes, while other states do not. Wash­ing­ton, the first state to le­gal­ize mar­i­juana, re­quires users to smoke in their own homes or, if they rent, with their land­lord’s per­mis­sion. Ver­mont’s law le­gal­izes pos­ses­sion and use of mar­i­juana but makes no pro­vi­sions for re­tail sales.

So far, the 10 states that have le­gal­ized weed have all put in place a min­i­mum age

of 21, mir­ror­ing the rules for al­co­hol. Some sup­port­ers, in­clud­ing the New York Pub­lic In­ter­est Re­search Group, say the age should be set at 18 in New York, ar­gu­ing that pick­ing 21 would only push younger users to the black mar­ket.

The grow­ing list of states is one rea­son why law­mak­ers say they want to le­gal­ize mar­i­juana in New York this year. Of­fi­cials in New Jer­sey and Con­necti­cut are also weigh­ing le­gal­iza­tion, and Mas­sachusetts and Ver­mont have al­ready done it. Of­fi­cials say they don’t want to be left be­hind and see New York­ers travel to other states to spend their money.

“I think we’re go­ing to pass it,” Cuomo said this past week when asked about the prospects for pas­sage this year.

HOW FAST AND HOW MANY?

Will the state cre­ate a new agency to over­see mar­i­juana, put it un­der the con­trol of an ex­ist­ing of­fice, such as the Depart­ment of Health, which over­sees med­i­cal mar­i­juana, or leave much of the de­ci­sion to lo­cal gov­ern­ments?

The an­swer could de­ter­mine how many re­tail shops are ul­ti­mately al­lowed, and when they might open.

New York has a his­tory of tak­ing a slow, cau­tious ap­proach when it comes to pot. Law­mak­ers ap­proved med­i­cal mar­i­juana in 2014, but in a lim­ited fash­ion. Only a hand­ful of dis­pen­saries were au­tho­rized, and only non- smok­able forms of cannabis were al­lowed. Even then, the first dis­pen­saries didn’t open for nearly 18 months.

In Cal­i­for­nia, many of the de­ci­sions about li­cens­ing and ap­prov­ing lo­cal pot re­tail­ers are given to lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, with the think­ing that they know what works best for their com­mu­nity, res­i­dents and busi­nesses. But op­po­nents say it can lead to a con­fus­ing mish­mash of rules and a lack of over­sight.

Mas­sachusetts took a far dif­fer­ent ap­proach, giv­ing a state task force con­trol over ap­prov­ing re­tail shops. That’s led to a slower, more con­ser­va­tive roll out. Vot- ers ap­proved le­gal pot in the Bay State in 2016, but the first re­tail shops didn’t open un­til late last year. Six are now open, com­pared to hun­dreds in Cal­i­for­nia.

“New York has the ben­e­fit of not be­ing the first to do this,” said Sen. Todd Kamin­sky, a Long Is­land Demo­crat. “There’s a lot to learn from the rest of the coun­try.”

THE OP­PO­SI­TION

Democrats now con­trol New York’s Assem­bly, Se­nate and the gover­nor’s of­fice, giv­ing mar­i­juana sup­port­ers a clear path to le­gal mar­i­juana this year. But op­po­nents re­main, and they’ll do what they can to fight or limit le­gal­iza­tion.

“Le­gal­iz­ing recre­ational mar­i­juana could likely ad­versely im­pact the health of a great many New York­ers,” Sarah Raven­hall, the di­rec­tor of the state As­so­ci­a­tion of County Health Of­fi­cials, wrote in an op-ed pub­lished Thurs­day.

The group ques­tions how the state will dis­cour­age preg­nant or nurs­ing women from con­sum­ing pot, and whether enough will be done to keep the drug out of the hands of mi­nors.

Lo­cal pros­e­cu­tors have pointed out that law en­force­ment will have to con­sider the best ways of test­ing mar­i­juana im­pair­ment in driv­ers, a dif­fi­cult goal since the ac­tive in­gre­di­ents in mar­i­juana can stay in the blood­stream for weeks — long after the ef­fects have worn off. That’s a chal­lenge sup­port­ers ac­knowl­edge as well.

Po­lice and pros­e­cu­tors around the coun­try are strug­gling with the same is­sue. Field so­bri­ety tests have long been used to catch drunken or drugged driv­ers, and many de­part­ments are step­ping up their train­ing now that they ex­pect to en­counter more driv­ers who have con­sumed mar­i­juana. Wash­ing­ton state has es­tab­lished a le­gal limit for THC in a driv­ers’ sys­tem, sim­i­lar to the well-known 0.08 blood al­co­hol level used to catch drunken driv­ers. Other states are con­sid­er­ing fol­low­ing suit.

“To us, the hard­est thing to fig­ure out is what do you do about driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence,” said Blair Horner, di­rec­tor of the New York Pub­lic In­ter­est Re­search Group.

Sen. Fred Ak­shar, a Re- pub­li­can from Broome County and a for­mer un­der­sh­er­iff, said he and many of his col­leagues re­main con­cerned about the harm­ful ef­fects of le­gal­iza­tion.

“It’s go­ing to have a pro­found ef­fect on pub­lic safety,” Ak­shar said.

TAXES

Among the tough­est ques­tions will be how much to charge in taxes and what to do with the rev­enue. And there’s no short­age of ideas.

Some have sug­gested rev­enue could sup­port re­pairs to New York City’s ag­ing sub­way sys­tem. Oth­ers want it spent on ef­forts to fight ad­dic­tion and men­tal health. Many say it should just go into the state’s gen­eral fund, like rev­enue from other taxes and fees.

Then there’s the ques­tion of the ap­pro­pri­ate tax rate, which cre­ates a prob­lem Goldilocks would un­der­stand: set the rate too high and con­sumers might buy from the black mar­ket or drive to nearby states where pot is cheaper. Set it too low and the pro­gram won’t raise the money of­fi­cials say the state needs.

“If you charge too much, you will drive the busi­ness back to the il­le­gal sales be­cause it is just less ex­pen­sive,” Cuomo told re­porters Thurs­day.

RE­VIS­IT­ING THE WAR ON DRUGS?

Mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion must be ac­com­pa­nied by the ex­punge­ment of past crim­i­nal con­vic­tions for mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion, ac­cord­ing to Assem­bly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Demo­crat whose pow­er­ful po­si­tion gives him sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence over the de­bate.

Heastie and fel­low pot sup­porter, Assem­bly Ma­jor­ity Leader Crys­tal Peo­ples-Stokes, a Buf­falo Demo­crat, ar­gue that thou­sands of black and Latino New York­ers were un­fairly tar­geted by po­lice and pros­e­cu­tors dur­ing decades of the war on drugs.

Pro­pos­als aimed at set­ting things right in­clude giv­ing mi­nori­ties or res­i­dents of neigh­bor­hoods hard hit by the war on drugs prece­dence when it comes to li­censes to grow or sell mar­i­juana. An­other would fun­nel some of the pot rev­enue to­ward ef­forts to help low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods.

HANS PENNINK

FIL E- In this Jan. 9, 2019file photo, Gov. An­drew Cuomo speaks to re­porters on the open­ing day of the leg­isla­tive ses­sion at the Capi­tol in Al­bany, N.Y. Ef­forts to le­gal­ize mar­i­juana for recre­ational use in New York are gain­ing steam and the gover­nor pre­dicts a bill will pass in 2019. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)

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