Legal Marijuana in the Empire State: DOPE Interviews Cannabis Attorney Cristina Buccola

New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo recently announced his plan to legalize recreational cannabis in 2019. He outlined the plan during his State of the State address beginning his third term in office, proclaiming that New York must “Stop the disproportionate impact on communities of color and let’s create an industry that empowers the poor communities that paid the price and not the rich corporations who come in to make a profit.”

Cuomo has been adamantly opposed to legal cannabis for years, stating that he considered marijuana a “gateway drug.” He even opposed a state medical marijuana program as recently as 2013, only approving a limited pilot program in 2014. His constituents, on the other hand, are largely in favor of legalization: a Quinnipiac University poll in May 2018 showed that 63 percent of New Yorkers support legalizing marijuana.

Why did Cuomo change his position on cannabis, and what are his plans? DOPE checks in with New York cannabis advocate and attorney Cristina Buccola to ask about the evolution, and what legal cannabis could look like in the Empire State.

DOPE Magazine: Gov. Andrew Cuomo described cannabis as a gateway drug just last year. What do you think motivated him to push to legalize cannabis in 2019?

Cristina Buccola: The fact that two states [New Jersey and Massachusetts] with which New York shares long borders are moving to legalize. One of the statements everyone jumped all over during the Democratic primary, when Cuomo was running against Cynthia Nixon, was that Cuomo said [about legalizing cannabis] that “the facts have changed.” No, the facts about cannabis haven’t changed. It’s the fact that legalization is coming to two states with incredibly populated borders that’s changed. This is a reality for New York.

It sounds like New York is ready to springboard into legalizing cannabis. What potential obstacles do you foresee?

At this very moment we have two primary pieces of adult-use cannabis legislation in play. One has been in the New York Assembly and the Senate for years. It’s called the MRTA, or the Marijuana Regulation Taxation Act. It lays forth a very comprehensive, consumer-oriented cannabis program that also keeps criminal-justice reform and social and economic equity first and foremost. The other piece of legislation is the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act, or the CRTA, Governor Cuomo’s cannabis legalization plan. It was made public as part of the 2020 NYS Executive Budget this month. We face the challenge of resonating these distinct pieces of legislation into a program that isn’t just lip service on matters regarding true criminal justice reform, reinvesting in communities hit hardest by cannabis prohibition, and creating economic opportunities for all New Yorkers.

What might that program look like?

One of the problems in New York is that there are only 10 licenses total under the medical program. And the [current] cannabis license holders are vertically integrated. That means they control everything from the production of seeds through to the actual sale [of cannabis] to cannabis consumers. To get one of those limited licenses was unbelievably expensive. You had to have an ungodly amount of money for the application process, the ability to compete. So we’d certainly want to see vertical integration dropped out except in a very narrow set of circumstances for our adult-use program. And that’s actually better for the consumer. If you have more people growing, and more people producing, and different types of retailers, that means that the likelihood that you’ll find someone who matches up with what you need is far greater than through a monopoly of eight or 10 companies.

In the CRTA, however, these 10 license holders would be able to participate in the adult-use market as vertically integrated, while also continuing to operate in the medical market, by ponying up additional cash as part of a bidding process – the proceeds from this process would then be used to provide equity applicants with low or no interest loans and incubation services. While it’s necessary to find funding for these types of services, there’s a fundamental problem with the “one and done” nature of this bidding process. If these 10 license holders have unbridled access to our adult-use market, likely to be the largest cannabis market in the world, New York is going to need more than a one-time pay-to-play fee. Their obligation of support needs to be continual and ongoing.

The CRTA does not allow for vertical integration, except for the 10 existing license holders who participate in the bidding process and for the smallest processors akin to craft breweries—essentially licenses reserved for small processors that would allow them to grow, process and retail. For larger entrants into the adult-use market, that would not be allowed. Again, that’s better for smaller businesses and it’s better for consumers.

What about home grows?

Under the CRTA medical patients or their caretakers can grow up to four plants, with a total of eight plants per household. There’s no homegrow for adults over the age of 21. This doesn’t foot with other adult-use states. All but Washington allow adults to grow at home, and all of them allow medical cannabis patients to grow. Despite having a commercial marketplace for cannabis, homegrow remains an important aspect of cannabis legalization programs, and we see that with the bipartisan bill just introduced in Washington State that would allow adults to grow up to six plants at home.

I would imagine that this is going to be hotly debated because frankly, I don’t think people understand home growing well, and there’s a lot of misinformation. The state limits the amount of plants you can have. Let’s say you’re growing six plants at home—you’ll likely net three pounds total if you’re growing in five-gallon pots. You’re not starting a cartel off of three pounds of pot a year. But some people don’t understand that. “Oh my god, people are growing at home!” Like it might somehow result in a further entrenchment of the illicit market. And it’s really not.

If we introduce an adult-use program without homegrown cannabis, we’d really just be forcing anyone who wants to consume into a market of certain retailers. And is that really freeing? I can’t say for sure that’s freeing the plant. I’m thrilled that we’re allowing patients to grow under the CRTA, because with cannabis and the endocannabinoid system, the specifics of what works for one person may not necessarily work for someone else and patients can grow their precise medicine.

But I think to be in step with other legal states, we need to educate people about what home growing is, and have that discussion publicly, because the discussion is currently being had in a [political] vacuum where uneducated people think that cartels are going to spin off from someone growing plants in their apartment. New York needs homegrow for adults.

How about expunging the criminal records of non-violent drug offenders?

One of the keystones for legalization in New York has got to be criminal justice reform. Changing criminal justice statutes to allow for expunging records would be very important. Some of the taxation revenues should go towards expungement clinics and costs.

Not only that, having your record cleared is one fraction. We don’t talk about the health harms associated with unnecessary incarceration enough. Right? So we want to make sure that there are other avenues of support for individuals that have been criminalized for behavior that is now going to be commercialized. That they have services available to them, including mental and physical health resources, job training, and education. And we want to make sure that they’re also not shut out of participating in the industry.

What do you think will happen with tax revenues from legal cannabis in New York?

Taxation should be aligned with funding priorities like criminal and socio economic justice reform and support, which must be specifically identified under legislation, whether it’s CRTA or something else. The legislation we pass must speak to reinvesting in communities, funding education programs for adult consumers, going into schools and having real conversations with kids. We need to educate consumers. We want people to understand that drugged driving is illegal, and we want people to understand what it means to consume.

We want to reinvest in communities, and make sure that we have viable ways for small businesses to participate, and find alternative lending arrangements so smaller participants can operate.

You don’t think New York should use legal marijuana funds to fix the MTA public transit system?

Nope. I think that’s ridiculous. The failing MTA has nothing to do with cannabis. There are many places that cannabis dollar tax revenues should go, and they should be prioritized over the MTA. Cannabis taxation is not a slush fund to fix all of New York state’s failures. It just isn’t. This is not something that’s going to fix every pothole or put an extra train car on every track.

Cristina Buccola is an attorney, advisor, and cannabis advocate undertaking public interest and policy work related to medical cannabis and economic and social justice issues. Buccola has testified in front of the New York State and New Jersey Legislatures about cannabis regulatory programs, and has worked with elected officials on developing cannabis legalization positions. She is a member of the New York Cannabis Bar Association and the National Cannabis Bar Association. Before opening her own law practice, Buccola served as the General Counsel of High Times and was a partner in an adult-use cultivation concern.



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