Weed Sure Like to See It

Issue 261

Steven Wishnia Feb 9, 2021

Once again, New York State’s legislative session has begun with strong support for legalizing marijuana — and two competing bills with different approaches to how to do it.

The two measures, as in 2019, are Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act (CRTA), which takes up more than half of his 415-page budget proposal, and the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) and state Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan).

Both would license growing cannabis and selling it to people 21 or older. The main differences, once again, are that the Cuomo bill is more restrictive and would give a smaller share of the jobs, tax revenues, and business opportunities created to “social equity” and a community reinvestment fund.

Those are basically reparations for the people and communities worst affected by marijuana prohibition, by heavy-handed policing and violent illicit-business disputes. From 1998 to 2014, an average of more than 100 people a day were arrested for misdemeanor pot possession in New York City, six out of seven of them Black or Latino, and at one point Brooklyn’s Brownsville and East New York accounted for 10% of those busts. The racial disparities were sometimes even more extreme upstate, says Melissa Moore, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents about 300 workers in the state’s medical-cannabis industry, sees a possible 30,000 new jobs if New York legalizes marijuana sales to adults — and it hopes those jobs are union.

The MRTA would earmark half of the estimated $350 million a year in tax revenues for the community reinvestment fund, says Moore. The CRTA would establish a $100 million social-equity fund for “communities which have seen disproportionate and unjust enforcement of cannabis prohibition,” State Director of Cannabis Programs Norman E. Birenbaum said in a statement to The Indypendent.

There’s “quite a deep difference” between those two amounts, says Moore. According to the CRTA text, that fund would start at $10 million a year and gradually rise to $50 million in 2027. However, the bill says other pot-tax revenues can be used to develop and run social and economic-equity programs.

Both bills would regulate adult use under the three-level structure New York uses for alcohol, putting production, distribution, and retailing into separate businesses. “Microbusinesses,” however, would be allowed to do all three, much as wineries and craft-beer breweries are allowed to have bars on their premises.

The MRTA, however, would license “on-site consumption,” cannabis coffeehouses, which would not be allowed to sell alcohol. It would also permit individuals to grow up to six plants. The CRTA would not allow either home-growing or pot-delivery services.

Delivery, notes Moore, has been “one of the few business models viable” during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also often cited as the part of the industry that requires the least capital to enter.

“The proposed CRTA and the MRTA are largely aligned and share the goals of ensuring a safe, equitable, and accessible cannabis industry for consumers and businesses,” Birenbaum said. “The CRTA reflects lessons learned and best practices from jurisdictions across North America.”

Like the state’s medical-cannabis law, both bills list “labor peace” agreements requiring employers to stay neutral in union-organizing campaigns among the criteria for granting licenses. But for applicants that have 25 or more employees, the MRTA would have the state licensing agency give priority to those that have union contracts and had their facilities built by union labor. “To make the bigger guys have to have a collective-bargaining agreement,” says Brad Usher, Sen. Krueger’s chief of staff, is a good way to balance the interests of protecting workers in the industry with expanding opportunities for small businesses.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents about 300 workers in the state’s medical-cannabis industry, sees a possible 30,000 new jobs if New York legalizes marijuana sales to adults — and it hopes those jobs are union. “Our priority is that the jobs have a pathway to unionization,” says Nikki Kateman of RWDSU Local 338. The RWDSU has collective-bargaining agreements with four of the 10 companies in the state’s medical-cannabis industry, and is negotiating with three others. It represents about 300 workers “across the entire supply chain,” from cultivation to processing to dispensaries, she says.

In New York, Kateman says, the union’s goal is to have the industry build social equity, racial justice, and careers that pay enough to support a family. One way to bring in people from the neighborhoods hit hardest by prohibition, she adds, would be by doing targeted hiring and recruitment and collaborating with community organizations.

How the differences between the bills will be resolved, says Brad Usher, is far beyond his predictive powers. The Legislature could pass the MRTA before approving the state budget. It could pass the budget with Gov. Cuomo’s CRTA included. Or it could work out a compromise between the two measures — or fail to, as happened in 2019.

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