Sen. Liz Krueger, D-New York, in January, 2017, in Albany, N.Y. A sponsor of cannabis legalization legislation, Krueger was a member of a recent panel examining the state of cannabis law reform in New York. (Hans Pennink, Associated Press)

New York turns an eye to recreational cannabis legalization

Brooklyn Law School last week was the epicenter of a growing movement to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana in New York.

The school’s Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship (CUBE) on November 6 hosted Cannabis Law: From Criminalization to Opportunity, billed by organizers as the largest cannabis policy reform event ever held in New York.

As the seven-member panel of legislators, lawyers, entrepreneurs and advocates weaved through the myriad topics facing the nascent industry, the conversation zeroed in on the socially responsible business practices that could be established within the confines of full legalization and regulation.

“Was there ever an industry better situated to be a for-profit/social impact dual function?” asked CUBE CEO John Rudikoff in his opening remarks.

The political winds blowing around marijuana have shifted and New York should be the next state to legalize marijuana, State Senator Liz Krueger said. Federal prohibition prevents the state and private entrepreneurs from capitalizing on the full economic potential of cannabis, she said.

“We see our neighboring states legalize, we see the economics escaping us,” said Krueger, whose district 28 stretches along Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “You just see other states going down this road, and the world didn’t end out in Colorado.”

Even as New York’s medical marijuana program inches forward, Krueger has proposed legalizing marijuana statewide.

In June, Krueger re-introduced New York State Senate Bill S3040A, dubbed the “Marihuana Regulation and Taxation ACT” (MRTA). It’s currently idling in committee where the two previous iterations of the bill died, she said.

New York is one of 29 states which have legalized medical marijuana. Approved by state legislators and signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2014, New York’s program launched in January 2016 as one of the more conservative programs in the country.

It initially only allowed patients with illnesses including cancer, AIDS, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease to consume smokeless forms of cannabis. The state added chronic pain as a qualifying condition last March, and Saturday – Veterans Day – Cuomo signed legislation to add post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of qualifying ailments that can legally be treated with medical marijuana.

Krueger’s latest push at marijuana legislation would establish a legal market for adult-use cannabis in the state, with the product taxed and regulated like alcohol. However, the latest version also frames legalization as a matter of criminal justice reform, earning the support of Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit advocating for responsible and equitable legal regulation of marijuana.

The bill would expand resentencing and reclassification of crimes for people previously convicted for marijuana, remove a positive marijuana test as justification for violating a person’s parole or probation and protect against discrimination in housing and employment based on a prior marijuana arrest or off-the-clock marijuana use, according to the Alliance’s campaign for the legislation.

Confronting the history of marijuana criminalization in New York and nationally is the first step towards achieving any social justice goals in the industry, said panelist Chris Alexander, a policy coordinator with Drug Policy Alliance and Queens native. That starts with recognizing the disparity in marijuana-related arrests in black and Latino communities, which far outnumber those in white neighborhoods, despite data showing similar usage rates.

“This is bad policy, this is bad law that very-specifically targets people of color,” Alexander said.

A new, fully legal cannabis industry is one way to address those “historical wrongs,” which include New York City’s stop and frisk policing tactics, said New York defense attorney Joseph A. Bondy.

The emerging cannabis industry faces complex issues, such as regulations that vary from state to state and undeveloped contract law, said David Feder, A Brooklyn Law grad and consultant for cannabis companies working to get licensed. Although daunting, it opens the door for the creation of a diverse industry.

“While this is frustrating for big companies,” he said, “It’s incredibly opportune for people who want to get into this business today. There are no experts in this industry — it’s so young.”

While the panel largely agreed that cannabis businesses could be champions for effecting social change, they acknowledged that the best intentions are susceptible to capitalist forces chiseling out the marijuana space. The Drug Policy Alliances’ Alexander contends that being at the negotiating table is key to preventing any social justice goals from losing out to the growing economic incentives.

“We’re concerned about being left behind, more than anything,” Alexander, who is African American, said. “We’re concerned with the for-profit side not being interested in things like clearing people’s records. People get big eyes when they see the potential revenue.”