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New York looked poised to legalize marijuana in 2020. Then COVID struck. What’s next?

Norman Birenbaum, New York’s new director of cannabis programs, talked with New York State Editor Joseph Spector on Feb. 26, 2020 to discuss his role and the state’s move toward legalizing marijuana. New York State Team

This is part of a Syracuse University student-driven reporting project through the NewsHouse website that is being published in USA TODAY Network. It takes a deep look at marijuana issues in New York as the state’s drug laws remain in flux.

Count legal marijuana in New York among the victims of COVID-19, along with the hundreds of millions in tax dollars and thousands of jobs legalization might have generated.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on the last day of March that the state’s spring legislative session was “effectively over” after several state lawmakers tested positive for the coronavirus.

They came back in June to address COVID-related issues, but didn’t address other outstanding issues.

Among the unfinished items Cuomo said would have to wait until next year was the legalization of marijuana for adult recreational use. Of the eight other states that were poised to legalize pot this year, only three appeared on track for legal weed in 2020.

Cuomo’s pronouncement of legalization’s demise was a turn of events given that, just a few weeks earlier, New York appeared all but certain to legalize marijuana as a way of raising revenue, lowering incarceration rates and getting a piece of a rapidly growing business sector.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Feb. 20, 2020, that he will visit states that have legalized marijuana to see what they are doing right and wrong. (Photo: Joseph Spector)

Cuomo himself vowed to make legalization a priority during his State of the State address in January.

And although some opposition still remains in the state and a similar effort failed in 2019, people across New York expressed support for Cuomo’s plan.

In Januar,y, a Siena College survey of New York registered voters found that 58% supported legalization.

Meanwhile a less-scientific NewsHouse poll of more than 250 New York college students found that more than 91% favored legalization.

The NewsHouse also reached out to New York state lawmakers in March.

Of the 20 who responded, five were against legalization, one undecided and 14 were in favo,

“It makes no sense to me that cannabis and alcohol are treated differently under the law when cannabis poses less health risks than alcohol, is less addictive and there is no empirical evidence suggesting that marijuana is a ‘gateway drug’ to other types of drug use,” said state Sen. Jen Metzger, D-Rosendale, Ulster County.

How COVID-19 derailed legal marijuana in NY

Protesters urging legislators to pass Marijuana legislation lay on the floor outside the Assembly Chamber doors at the state Capitol Wednesday, June 19, 2019, in Albany, N.Y. (Photo: Hans Pennink, AP)

With so much support, what went wrong? The culprit appears to be the same thing upending life everywhere – the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Sen. Luis Sepúlveda, D-Bronx, has been a strident supporter of legalization. Yet he acknowledged that COVID-19 made a proper policy discussion about legalization impossible for now.

Eventually, he thinks marijuana will be legal for adult recreational use in New York. The coronavirus may have slowed that effort, but it has also made it more certain than ever, he said.

“Ultimately, when the storm settles, we are going to have to deal with it one way or another,” Sepúlveda said.

Legalize marijuana in New York | Created with Datawrapper

“We are going to pass some form of legalization, and you know what, when you consider the incredible deficits that we are going to have as a result of corona, all revenue streams are going to have to be considered … including gambling, online gambling and things of that nature,” he added.

What college students say about NY’s legal weed odds

New York Harvest Festival and Freedom Fair organizer Rob Robinson is a CNY marijuana legalization activist interested in social justice and environmental reform. (Photo: Emily Kenny, Special Contributor to USA TODAY Network)

Syracuse University policy studies freshman Lexi Whitcomb worries the opposite might be true.

“It has been seen as an evil,” the Connecticut native said of marijuana. “And I know a lot of lawmakers are older. So if they have that traditional view about it, they might be still thinking about that and the effects of it being negative as a drug.”

Whitcomb supports legalization and agrees with Sepúlveda that the economy will need a boost after COVID, as does freshman Allison Boschetti of New Jersey.

“Right now, the coronavirus pandemic is taking a huge toll on our economy, and the legalization of marijuana could help to build up our economy again,” said Boschetti, who studies public relations.

She added that it’s “foolish to delay this when legalization will inevitably happen.”

But more than economics, Boschetti supports legalization as a social justice issue, citing the toll the war on drugs has taken on urban and minority communities — an argument made by many lawmakers in support of the law.

Economics senior Luis Solano supports legalization but said it was a smart decision to delay in the light of the COVID outbreak so the state could focus on stopping the virus.

In his home state of California, Solano said having weed legal has been a benefit.

“People are definitely less on edge about buying marijuana,” he said. He added that marijuana is “one less thing for law enforcement to worry about,” although he said regulation of driving under the influence is a problem.

Assemblyman David Weprin, D-Queens, spoke at a rally in January 2020 at the state Capitol on the need to make sure revenue from marijuana sales goes back into communities of color. (Photo: Joseph Spector)

New Yorker Dashawn Austin, a marketing and advertising student, said he supports legalization and is understanding of the delay. “I just don’t want it to slip through the cracks,” he added.

But Austin thought legalization might affect campus culture, hoping that university police would worry about it less.

“I don’t think that marijuana should still be illegal,” said Haley Francois, a first-year accounting from Scotia, New York.

“So if a politician thought it should stay illegal, I wouldn’t vote for them.”

Andrew Benbenek, Sydney Bergan, Elijah Brown, Mallory Carlson, Cameron Ezeir, Talia Gerardi, Porter Holt, Emily Karp, Owen Mitchell, Eleanor Quarles and Morgan Wood contributed to this report.

NY seemed poised to legalize recreational marijuana in 2020. Then COVID-19 struck and derailed the legislation. Here's what supporters say is next

New York Marijuana Laws

Created byВ FindLaw’s team of legal writers and editors | Last updated October 27, 2020

While medical and recreational marijuana has become legalized in more states, New York’s marijuana laws remain mostly intact, with changes focused primarily on medical marijuana.

New York’s Recreational Marijuana Laws and Penalties

New York’s drug laws are complex. There are half a dozen multiple classes laid out for drug possession alone.В With that caveat, the basic provisions of New York marijuana laws are listed in the table below. See FindLaw’s Drug Charges section to learn more.

Public Health Code Sections 3306, 3307

Up to 1 ounce (possession in the second degree) – civil violation that incurs fines of no more than 50 dollars but no jail time

1 toВ 2 ounces (possession in the first degree)В – Civil violation punishable by not more than 200 dollars.

2 to 8 ounces – up to one year in jail and/or $1,000 fine

8 to 16 ounces – 1-4 years in prison and/or up to $5,000 fine (mandatory prison time for second offenses)

16 ounces to 10 pounds – 1-7 years in prison and/or up to $5,000 fine (mandatory prison time for second offenses)

10 pounds or more 1-15 years in prison and/or up to $5,000 fine (mandatory prison time for second offenses)

Up to two ounces without payment – up to three months in jail and/or up to $500 fine

Cultivating or selling up to 24 grams – up to 1 year in jail and/or up to $1,000 fine

25 grams to four ounces – 1-4 years in prison and/or up to $5,000 fine

4 to 16 ounces – 1-7 years in prison and/or up to $5,000 fine

16 ounces or more – 1-15 years in prison and/or up to $5,000 fine

Selling any amount to a minor – 1-7 years in jail and/or up to $5,000 fine

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

Medical Marijuana Laws in New York

New York allows for the limited use of medical marijuana within the state. No more than twenty dispensaries can operate statewide. Those facilities are able to prescribe non-smokable preparations (i.e. tinctures, edibles) of marijuana to people with cancer, glaucoma, or other diseases on a state list.

Research the Law

  • New York Code
  • Official State Codes – Links to the official online statutes (laws) in all 50 states and DC.

New York Marijuana Laws: Related Resources

  • Medical Marijuana: An Overview
  • Drug Manufacturing and Cultivation
  • New York Criminal Statute of Limitations

Arrested Under New York Marijuana Laws? Talk to an Attorney

States have generally loosened their marijuana laws, but it’s still a crime to sell, grow, or possess cannabis in New York. If you’ve been charged with a marijuana-related crime, penalties upon conviction (or after a guilty plea) may vary quite a bit. Your best bet is to contact a skilled drug crime lawyer in New York who can explain how the state’s marijuana laws apply to your specific circumstances and provide you with your options moving forward.

Chart providing details of New York Marijuana Laws. Check out more about this and related topics at FindLaw's New York Criminal Laws section.