Legislation to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use in New York doesn’t have unanimous support in the State Senate partly because some Democrats in the chamber want tougher penalties for those convicted of selling large amounts of the drug on the black market.
After meeting behind closed doors with other Democrats to discuss a newly amended version of the legislation Wednesday, the bill’s sponsor said a top concern was over the leniency of the measure.
“We limit criminal penalties so much that there are some concerns that there’s not enough of a criminal penalty for larger, illegal distribution,” said state Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, who sponsors the bill.
The discussion was not a preview for passage; they didn’t count votes at the meeting, Krueger said. It was, instead, an opportunity for members to express what they’d like to see addressed in a future version of the bill.
Democrats who were previously cautious about the legislation appeared to be closer to lending their support for the most recent version, Krueger said.
The new version directs part of the revenue from the sale of legal marijuana to law enforcement agencies around the state for additional training and personnel. A major concern among some Democrats earlier this year was over the lack of training and resources for officers to detect when a driver is impaired by marijuana. The new bill appears to address that.
The bill would also direct the State Police to establish a pilot program for the testing and development of new technologies to detect drivers who are driving under the influence of the drug, according to the bill.
Testing done through that program, which would last a year, would not be allowed to be used by police to charge a driver with a crime, according to the bill. It would only be in place as a trial run for technologies to test whether a driver is impaired.
Lawmakers are also considering whether to create a lower-level charge for driving while impaired by marijuana, which currently doesn’t exist in state law. That would allow defendants to face lesser charges for the crime, which often happens when someone is accused of drinking while driving.
But the proposed penalties for selling marijuana without a license from the state, and consequently outside regulations, remain too low for all Democrats to lend their support in the Senate, Krueger said.
Selling more than three ounces of marijuana without a license from the state would result in either a fine or a class A misdemeanor charge, for example. The latter penalty carries up to a year in jail if convicted.
Other crimes, like unlawfully selling marijuana prescribed for medical purposes or selling the drug to someone underage, would be class E felonies, according to the bill. Those carry a heavier sentence, which can be as long as four years in prison.
Many other concerns that were previously expressed by members over legalization, Krueger said, have been assuaged through educating lawmakers about the provisions of the bill, and the drug itself.
“I do feel we’re making a lot of progress and I do feel like there’s been enormous education among people about the mythology versus the facts,” Krueger said.
Democrats in the Assembly are planning to have a similar conversation, but hadn’t as of Wednesday afternoon. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, has been lobbying members in the chamber to support the bill and has said in recent weeks that she’s confident it will pass the Assembly before the end of session.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been pessimistic in recent weeks about the chances of legalizing the drug in New York this year. He’s said he’s not pushing hard on the issue, as he has with others, because the Senate had previously said they didn’t have the votes for legalization.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, have said the path to legalization would be easier if Cuomo was more outspoken on the issue and became personally engaged with the Legislature’s efforts to decriminalize the drug.
Progress appears to have been made in the past month, at least. A spokesman for Cuomo said last week that staff from his office and both chambers of the Legislature have talked about legalizing marijuana during recent three-way meetings, though lawmakers were not present for those discussions.
Opponents of legalizing marijuana have been active at the Capitol as well, as of late. They’ve argued that the measure would invite large companies to come into New York and dominate the market, rather than provide a boost to the state’s regional economies. They also had the same concerns over traffic safety.
Lawmakers will have until next Wednesday to come to an agreement on legalizing marijuana if they want to do so this year. They’re scheduled to leave Albany for the year after June 19.