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Legalized Marijuana in New York: This Could Be the Year

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Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo renewed his vow on Wednesday to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in New York, proposing a new office to regulate the market and licensing opportunities for communities most affected by the disparate enforcement of drug laws.

“I think this should have been passed years ago,” Mr. Cuomo said during a video briefing. “This is a year where we do need the funding and a lot of New Yorkers are struggling. This year will give us the momentum to get it over the goal line.”

The pledge marks Mr. Cuomo’s third attempt at legalizing marijuana; similar efforts have unraveled each year since Democrats took control of the Legislature in 2019, mostly as a result of disagreements over how to distribute the lucrative tax dollars from marijuana sales and the licenses to sell the drug.

But the push to legalize marijuana is likely to have far greater momentum in 2021, given the profound fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Indeed, New York State leaders kicked off the new legislative session on Wednesday with a singular, once-in-a-generation challenge: how to rescue a state in a pandemic-driven crisis.

Tax revenues have dried up, leading to an estimated shortfall of nearly $63 billion over the next four years. The fiscal straits have given new wind to measures that could raise revenue, like increasing taxes on the rich, allowing mobile sports betting and legalizing marijuana.

This year will also see Democrats enjoy a supermajority in both chambers, after the party expanded its majority in the State Senate in November, giving legislators the option of aggressively pursuing left-wing measures without fear of a veto from Mr. Cuomo, a centrist Democrat.

Here is a look at some key themes for the legislative session, which runs through mid-June.

Did New Jersey force New York’s hand to legalize pot?

Democratic lawmakers in New York have prophesied the legalization of weed for the past two years. Each year, their high hopes have crashed against the messy realities of lawmaking in the state capital, Albany.

But legalization may gain momentum since more states have legalized weed, placing New York under added pressure to tap into the potentially billions of dollars in economic activity derived from cannabis sales.

In November, voters in neighboring New Jersey approved the legal use of recreational marijuana, heightening the prospects that it would become one of the largest marijuana markets in the country.

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“People know it’s a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ as it relates to marijuana legalization,” Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic majority leader, said in an interview.

Robert Mujica, the governor’s budget director, said Mr. Cuomo’s legalization proposal could generate about $300 million a year in tax revenue, though much of that money would not materialize until rules and regulations were fully implemented years down the road.

Jan. 11, 2021

Part of the logjam had centered around what to do with the revenue from pot sales. Many progressive lawmakers support steering tax proceeds to low-income and minority communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. But during negotiations last year, Mr. Cuomo wanted the executive branch to have more control over the revenue.

“That is still the sticking point that we have not discussed or resolved,” said Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Upper Manhattan who sponsored a legalization bill in the Senate. “I think governors always want that.”

Will the pandemic break the governor’s pledge of no new taxes?

One thing that everyone can agree upon is that the state needs money. The triple whammy of lost jobs, lost taxes and big bills related to the coronavirus response have left budget holes that can be solved only one of four ways: raise, cut, borrow or beg.

Of those, the progressive branch of the Legislature has a clear preference: new taxes on the wealthy, an idea that has previously been met with strident opposition from Mr. Cuomo, who posits that such taxes would drive high-earners out of the state.

But the desperate times have seemingly softened his position, with the governor suggesting in December that new taxes could be in offing.

“We are trying to avoid any additional pain for so many New Yorkers that have obviously already borne the brunt of a lot of the pandemic,” Ms. Stewart-Cousins said. “That will take us looking at taxing millionaires and billionaires and it’s a matter of shared sacrifice and being part of the solution.”

On Tuesday, a collection of groups seeking new taxes gathered outside the governor’s office in Manhattan, pushing six different tax bills that target high-earners and corporations. Several tax increases on the wealthy have previously passed the Assembly — nominally the more liberal of Albany’s two chambers — but may have new momentum in the Senate, too, where Ms. Stewart-Cousins has expressed general support for tax plans.

And with Democrats on the brink of reclaiming control of Congress, begging may not be quite as necessary; Mr. Cuomo was optimistic about the possibility of a cash infusion from Washington to help close the state budget gap.

Want to gamble? It could be a lot easier soon.

For gamblers, New York has often been in the shadow of New Jersey, where Atlantic City dominated the East Coast casino market for decades, and where, more recently, mobile wagering interfaces have allowed gamblers to place sports bets anywhere inside the state.

New York legalized sports betting in 2019, but only on the premises of state-licensed casinos. That deal prompted frustration from supporters of such betting, including State Senator Joseph Addabbo, the chairman of the Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee, who sees the expansion of gaming as a big revenue winner.

“We’re that disabled car in the right lane watching the other cars fly past us,” Mr. Addabbo said on Wednesday. “New Jersey is taking our money.”

But that could change with new support from Mr. Cuomo, who announced on Wednesday that he planned to push for mobile betting in his State of the State address next week.

What other major changes might be considered?

New York became a national laughingstock when election officials last year took longer than almost any other state to count a deluge of absentee ballots prompted by the pandemic, delaying results in some key races for weeks.

This year, lawmakers could spearhead efforts to reform the Board of Elections and may take up legislation to speed up the counting process. Proposals have also been floated to improve voter registration. And come November, voters may get to vote on a constitutional amendment to expand absentee voting to all voters permanently, as opposed to just during a public health emergency.

Another hot-button issue surrounds the aftermath of the mass protests last summer following George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. They propelled the Legislature to approve a bevy of changes to police practices, including a ban on the use of chokeholds and the repeal of a decades-old law that kept police disciplinary records secret. (Even so, police departments are still finding ways to shield those records.)

But activists and liberal lawmakers are pushing for an even more far-reaching criminal justice agenda for 2021 that includes some past proposals, like restricting the length of time people in prison can be placed in solitary confinement and making certain people older than 54 eligible for parole regardless of their crime or sentence.

The first day of the session was, well, different.

The day, usually a pompous affair when the halls of the State Capitol are packed with lobbyists and activists, was far more subdued this year.

With the Capitol closed to the public, the stately building was eerily quiet and empty, with vacant offices and a skeleton crew of staff and security personnel. Most lawmakers participated remotely, sworn in from their living rooms or district offices.

Carl E. Heastie, the speaker of the Assembly, and Ms. Stewart-Cousins were re-elected to their posts in mostly empty chambers on Wednesday. Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, on Monday will lay out his 2021 agenda in the State of the State address, which he said would be held virtually.

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