According to a 2018 NBC News story, more than 77 tons of weed is consumed in New York City per year, making New York City and the Greater New York area among the biggest cannabis markets in the world — this is despite not having legal retail outlets. 

While New Yorkers seem to largely support adult-use legalization and the state government wants in on the potential profits, the effort to legalize stalled out in June 2019 over disagreements on how revenue would be allocated and is currently fixed on social equity. Since, citizens, advocates, lobbyists, and legislators have been trying earnestly to come to an agreement. 

Currently, only 55 thousand New York patients who qualify for the existing medical program can use cannabis, and the qualifications are very restrictive. Many thought New York would see legalization by June 2019, but the ground dropped out when the democratic majority legislature did not pass either of the two legalization bills on the table. Some speculated that a last minute push from law enforcement lobbies and concerned parents were to blame, while others mark the lack of actionable social equity blueprints as why it didn’t get enough support. Either way, millions of dollars worth of sales happen just outside New York’s legal doors. 

Weed in New York, a brief history in under 200 words 

In 1934, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia commissioned the first in-depth study into the effects of smoking cannabis in the United States. Released in 1944 and called The LaGuardia Report, the study found that cannabis use was not dangerous as prohibitionists claimed it was.  

Despite this, the legacy of cannabis in New York is one of severe injustice — in 2018, nearly 90% of arrestees were Black or Latinx despite total cannabis arrests decreasing by 42% from the previous year. 

In New York, cannabis was legalized for medical use in 2014 and possessing less than 25 grams of flower was decriminalized to a $100 fine in 1977, the rest of the state expanded decriminalization in 2019. But as far as adult use without medical permission goes, weed is still illegal. Regardless of the law’s directive to fine citizens rather than arrest them, law enforcement hasn’t completely stopped detaining people for cannabis possession, smoking, or sale, even when many District Attorneys stop pursuing cases.

We asked some voters what they think

Although the efforts to legalize adult use cannabis is happening at the legislative level, the wants and opinions of New York voters matters. We asked some NYC voters their thoughts on legalization. 

  • Marcy Ayres, senior photo editor at The Culture Trip thinks: “[What’s wrong with cannabis legalization in New York is] it still is not fully legalized. Decriminalization is a great start but we need to also remedy all of the incarcerated people from low level drug offenses, and then legalize recreational use and have the tax revenue from this go to help infrastructure within cities and towns all over New York state … As much as I want legalization, I want it to be fair and just. Look at the lives that have been forever changed by broken policing — release those who have been imprisoned for the same thing we are fighting for.” 
  • Denzel Thompson, artist says: I want to see less people of color being locked up. I want to be able to grow my own plants. Make licenses easy for people of color to obtain and help neighborhoods in the city that need it the most. Allocate tax money to those negatively impacted on the war on drugs!

Current state of play

The hope of the state’s policy makers and advocates is that a bill will pass this spring to not only finally fully legalize but also address the harm done to the more than 800 thousand people who, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, dealt with the criminal justice system for possessing, selling, or consuming cannabis in the last 20 years.

This hope rests in one of two bills: the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act (CRTA), and Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), both of which aim to achieve key measures:

  • Create a regulated cannabis market in the state 
  • Change the criminal code regarding cannabis use, possession, or sale
  • Resentence and reclassify incarcerated people with cannabis charges

While they share similarities, the differences are complicated. New York politics tend to be painfully slow moving and details are revised during negotiations between policy makers. The simplest way to view the differences: the CRTA is Governor Cuomo’s proposal that is viewed as tightly regulated and the MRTA comes from state senators Liz Krueger and Andrea Stewart-Cousins and believed to have more direct language about the distribution of cannabis tax revenue to social equity programs. Amendments are expected to be made over the coming weeks and months.    

Who are the major players? 

  • Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York: The current governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, comes from a storied progressive political dynasty. While opposing adult use as recently as 2017, Cuomo has had a political change of heart and has made adult-use legalization one of his main focuses in his 2019 state of the state address and 2020 budget plan.  
  • Norman Birenbaum, Director of Cannabis Programs: Birenbaum’s hire to be New York’s “cannabis czar” is one of a series of moves that Cuomo has made towards legalization. Birenbaum, who held a similar role in Rhode Island, can begin to conceptualize the infrastructure before a bill even passes.
  • Kassandra Frederique, New York director of policy for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA): The Drug Policy Alliance has rode the entire length of the NY legalization rollercoaster, with Frederique in the front seat. She advocates for broad criminal justice and drug reform, not just going to bat for cannabis.
  • Liz Krueger, NY state senator: a Democrat from the 28th District representing part of Upper Manhattan, Krueger is the co-sponsor and one of the authors of MRTA, and a primary advocate in the state senate for adult use.
  • Andrea Stewart-Cousins, NY state senator: a member of the state senate since 2006, has been leading the legislative body as Majority leader and temporary president for the past year, and receiving praise for being a decisive and dedicated lawmaker. Stewart-Cousins is the co-sponsor of MRTA alongside Krueger, and has supported cannabis reform for many years.

How to take action 

What can you, the New York voter, do to help the cause? Here are some easy ways to help legalization: 

  • Get in contact with state officials. Phone calls and emails to legislators are crucial — staffers tally opinions for review all the time, and by using direct communication, you can speak your mind. Find your assembly member here and find your senator here. 
  • Join lobby days and legislative link ups. To get more hands on, attend organized by groups like Women Of Color in Cannabis, Minorities 4 Medical Marijuana, and Women Grow — many bring signs or come with statements ready, like a town hall-meets-protest. 
    • Feb. 12: SMART NY is organizing a lobby day in Albany with free transportation from NYC, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse
  • Try using social media. Whether you’re flexing your opinion or sharing your story, a tipping point can only occur when indifference and opposition is converted to support. Tell everyone you follow know that you back the bud. Let your voice be heard from everyone from the ancient acquaintances to new colleagues.

Take it from some activists

Humble Bloom co founders Solonje Burnett and Danniel Swatosh, are two legalization luminaries who are setting cannabis intentions in New York with regular educational and community building events and programming. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

WM News: Why did you become an activist for cannabis legalization? 

Solonje Burnett: “I’ve always been a humanist, generally concerned about the welfare of all people and working toward equal treatment, respect and justice for each individual no matter what economic, gender, racial, ethnic, religious or immigration circumstance you were born into. Cannabis is a part of that activism for [the] human equity equation. As a black woman who is privileged enough to never have been entangled in our so-called criminal justice system, I believe it is my duty to advocate for those who look like me, as well as the voiceless, and disenfranchised.”

WM News: What would a typical day for an activist look like? 

Danniel Swatosh: “Every day is different. My activism isn’t centered around cannabis, it’s centered around humanity. At Humble Bloom we use cannabis as a conduit for larger conversations around the environment, racism, sexuality, stigma, systematic oppression, conscious consumerism, vulnerability and so on. So whether I’m marching for human rights and a vital planet — or simply informing myself, spreading the word, holding events and sparking difficult conversations — I’m always thinking of ways to push this world into regenerative, fair and equitable direction. Currently, it’s comparing and contrasting Cuomo’s CRTA bill and the Kreuger and Peoples-Stokes MRTA bill, then disseminating that information to my community and beyond  through strategic partnerships and calls to action. Also, I’m a mother so teaching my children how to be happier, healthier and more human is of the utmost importance.”

WM News: Any advice for New Yorkers?

Burnett: “Get educated, involved, and active. From medicinal to recreational, CBD to THC, luxury and beauty, to everyday necessity, the time is now to make a change in how the legal cannabis landscape will affect you, your loved ones, and the New York economic ecosystem.”

Swatosh: “I want New Yorkers to use the momentum of the cannabis movement to educate and empower themselves. There’s always going to be a new leader and new order. It’s time for people to use their voice, to show up in Albany, to write letters and to make those phone calls. We are all connected and part of a sensitive ecosystem that is not sustainable unless everyone is included. Privilege will not protect forever.”

This guide is a collaboration between Weedmaps News and WM Policy, the advocacy and government relations arm of Weedmaps. WM Policy staff, armed with decades of legislative, regulatory and public policy experience, works with lawmakers, advocates, industry groups and others to forge safe, fair and accessible cannabis policy across the country and around the world.  Weedmaps News is an editorial product that provides the most useful information and tips to navigate the cannabis commerce landscape. 

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