By Andrea Deckert, originally published in Rochester Business Journal on January 15, 2021.

Recreational marijuana likely to be legalized in N.Y. this year

This legislative session for 2021 is looking to be the year that state lawmakers legalize recreational marijuana in New York, with those supporting the measure saying the economic devastation from the COVID-19 pandemic is one driving force behind getting the measure passed.

“It’s 100 percent going to happen this year,” says state Sen. Jeremy Cooney, D-56. “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.”

The process has already started in Albany.

Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a proposal to legalize and create a system to oversee and regulate cannabis in New York.

The proposal limits the sale of cannabis products to adults 21 and over and establishes stringent quality and safety controls including regulation of the packaging, labeling, advertising and testing of all cannabis products.

An Office of Cannabis Management would be created to oversee the new adult-use program, as well as the state’s existing medical and cannabinoid hemp programs.

In addition, a structure for the adult-use market will be created by offering licensing opportunities and assistance to entrepreneurs in communities of color who have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.

Cuomo expects legalization to generate more than $300 million in tax revenue once fully implemented.

“Despite the many challenges New York has faced amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also created a number of opportunities to correct longstanding wrongs and build New York back better than ever before,” Cuomo said in a statement.

“Not only will legalizing and regulating the adult-use cannabis market provide the opportunity to generate much-needed revenue, but it also allows us to directly support the individuals and communities that have been most harmed by decades of cannabis prohibition.”

Cuomo has tried to get similar measures passed in his last two annual budget proposals, but disagreements in the state Legislature on issues such as how the money should be used kept it from passing.

Cooney, who is newly elected to the Senate, supports the legalization of marijuana, noting the upstate region can realize new economic development opportunities from one of the fastest growing sectors of agri-businesses.

“Clearly we are starting 2021 in a tough economic environment,” Cooney says, noting the new revenue source could help fill some gaps in the state budget.

He believes Rochester could reap many benefits from legalizing marijuana.

“The region who stands to benefit the most is upstate New York,” Cooney says, noting there is ample land in the region to support the agri-business.

He is in favor of offering low-interest loans and business counseling for those who are interested in the industry, adding it should be an opportunity available to all, from first-time entrepreneurs to large companies.

Cooney also believes the issue goes beyond economics and is also a social justice issue, noting people of color are disproportionately impacted by the issue.

He supports using a portion of the tax revenue generated toward programs such as workforce training or educational initiatives in communities that have most been affected.

Another reason Cooney believes legislation will be passed this year is because several states have already done it.

There are now 15 states where recreational marijuana use is legal for adults.

“New York has fallen behind the rest of the country on this issue,” Cooney says. “We now have an opportunity to lead.”

Robert Duffy, president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, believes legalizing marijuana at the state and federal level this year is inevitable.

“We are in the midst of a lot of changes,” Duffy says. “There’s no doubt it will be legal in 2021.”

Duffy says the state has spent two-plus years doing work behind the scenes to make sure issues are addressed regarding the legislation, noting the legalization should be done in a responsible and thought-out manner.

Duffy, a former Rochester city police chief, says there needs to be technology in place so police officers can determine who is under the influence of marijuana.

He also advises lawmakers to be thoughtful when it comes to the taxes on, and pricing of, marijuana, noting if it taxed or priced too high, people will still seek it out illegally where the price may be cheaper.

He does believe there will be economic benefits for the region, namely through the creation of new business ventures and jobs.

While the measure will likely be approved this year, Duffy says changes will not happen instantaneously.

It will also be important to note how the legislation is rolled out and what types of regulations will be in place.

“It’s important to look at the positives, be clear about the negatives and work collaboratively to address the issues,” Duffy says.

Tristan Hujer, a partner at Phillips Lytle LLP, also believes passage of the law will happen this year.

“The pandemic is one reason,” he says, noting the potential for revenue generation and the equal distribution of benefits.

He adds that bipartisan support for the measure has increased, noting that Rep. William Barclay, minority leader in the Assembly, stated last month he believes state leaders will legalize marijuana in 2021.

One obstacle involves an individual’s beliefs about whether marijuana can be made safe for use. He adds these beliefs could help drive efforts that ensure the legalization is done right.

That includes making sure recreational marijuana use is safe, it is a net positive on a company’s balance sheet and it is an equalizer for all.

Hujer has been working with clients, noting they are doing everything they can to be prepared to take action once the measure is passed.

He represents cannabis growers, distributors and other businesses, including manufacturers and retailers, primarily in Central and Western New York.

“They want to hit the ground running,” he says.

Hujer is optimistic the passage of such a law would be a positive for the region’s farming community, including growers of all sizes.

He also sees benefits for the Western New York industrial hemp industry.

Hujer also notes he will be paying attention to the regulations involved with the law once it is passed, noting those regulations will play a major role in how the industry develops and runs.

“The devil is in the details,” he says.