State lawmakers who created New York's recreational cannabis policies said Tuesday they want to review the 2021 law that legalized recreational cannabis in the state and make needed changes to spur faster growth within its sluggish market.
Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes said the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act that legalized recreational cannabis in New York deserves to be revisited. Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the legislation, which she sponsored, into law in March 2021.
"When the MRTA was negotiated, it was under the former governor and there are some pieces of it, quite honestly, that have his footprint on it that are not necessarily fiitting for 2024," Peoples-Stokes told Spectrum News 1 at Tuesday's opening of a new dispensary in Albany.
Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, said it could be time for the Legislature to improve the law after the state Office of Cannabis Management has been at the center of backlash for bringing new stores online at a plodding pace.
Gov. Kathy Hochul recently told the Buffalo News she wishes the Legislature would restructure the MRTA legislation, and changes are needed to make it easier to regulate the rampant illegal cannabis market.
Peoples-Stokes said she agrees, and expects to have the conversation in the coming weeks as lawmakers negotiate the next state budget.
"I don't have a problem doing a deep dive and seeing what we need to change," the Assembly leader said.
Sen. Jeremy Cooney, a Rochester Democrat who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Cannabis, also welcomes the law's review.
"The senator is definitely open to any changes that solidify and more accurately reflect the MRTA's original vision, including securing an equitable marketplace with a quicker timeline," according to a statement from Cooney's office Tuesday.
Hochul last week also criticized the law Cuomo signed to the Buffalo News, saying it "was crafted in a way that was not poised for success."
Rich Azzopardi, spokesman for Cuomo, argues officials most critical of the MRTA, like Hochul, were not in the room when the law was finalized and have had the last three years to make changes.
"Any time there is a major policy change, there may be unintended consequences that have to be addressed," Azzopardi said Tuesday in a statement. "Blaming Big Bad Andrew Cuomo for their negligence is laughable and is fooling no one — the current administration and the Legislature are not elected bystanders and have done nothing except let these problems fester. They collectively have been the general managers at Pottery Barn for three budgets now, and if you break it, you bought it."
Peoples-Stokes wants to see the potency tax repealed, as proposed in Hochul's budget, and to remove marketing restrictions to allow dispensaries to better advertise cannabis products. But she added several parts of the law should be left alone, including the statute's commitment to prioritize social equity, or giving at least 51% of licenses to applicants disproportionately devastated by past drug laws.
A collection of cannabis farmers, retailers and others are pushing the Legislature to codify the Conditional Adult-Use Retail Application program, which prioritized licenses for people with past marijuana convictions, to prevent additional legal challenges that have stunted the industry's takeoff.
But Peoples-Stokes does not think codifying the program is necessary.
"I think OCM is doing what we asked them to do as a legislative body, and so I don't think that needs changing," the assemblywoman said. "But there's a number of people from a number of different areas who have come to us suggesting how things can be changed and I'm willing to take a look at all of those."
The state Office of Cannabis Management remains focused on equity in removing the stigma around cannabis while reinvesting in communities of color most impacted by the War on Drugs.
OCM on Tuesday celebrated the opening of the state's 50th Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary — one of 63 legal dispensaries operating statewide.
Kelly Hilland and her three children co-operate Brownies in Albany County. The store, at 1686 Central Ave., opened at noon Tuesday.
"We're hard workers, we keep going, we want to support the community," said Hilland, who was an active duty soldier in the U.S. Army National Guard for more than 35 years.
She served three deployment tours in Iraq, Djibouti and Afghanistan and received a CAURD license because her son has a past marijuana conviction under former drug laws.
"We're happy to be here, that Colonie accepted us to be here and open up this business," she added.
An additional legal dispensary will help alleviate the backlog, but does not scratch the surface to overcome tens of thousands of illegal stores open across New York, putting undue pressure on legal shops.
Hochul has blasted the Office of Cannabis Management for the disparity, telling reporters Monday she's considering making changes in the agency's leadership if it will make dispensaries open more quickly.
"I'm not satisfied," the governor said at an unrelated event in Syracuse. "I want more enforcement. I am looking at leadership. I'm looking at opportunities to make major changes."
OCM Executive Director Chris Alexander said he frequently meets with the Executive Chamber. After Tuesday's grand opening, he did not deny ongoing conversations with the Second Floor about changing the department's leadership, but would not give details about his conversations with the governor.
"We talk with the Executive Chamber every day," he said.
The executive director added he shares Hochul's frustration about the slow opening of legal dispensaries — now starting to speed up after a series of lawsuit settlements stalled the rollout for months.
"We're really excited about the increased scale of openings in the last few months," Alexander said. "We've seen a doubling of the number of dispensaries so we want to keep that trajectory."
OCM officials said they expect up to a dozen dispensaries will continue opening each month around the state over the next several months.
The Cannabis Control Board canceled its January meeting where board members prepared to approve three additional licenses of thousands of waiting applicants. Gov. Hochul said she had expected the board to consider up to 400 more licenses for cannabis growers and sellers.
Alexander said it's labor-intensive for OCM staff to thoroughly review an application to ensure it complies with state and local laws.
"It takes time," he added.
Alexander on Tuesday said the date of the next Control Board meeting has not been set. The meeting is expected to take place Feb. 16 in Albany, according to an Office of Cannabis Management newsletter emailed Jan. 25 to a list of subscribers. The date is not posted on OCM's or the board's websites or public schedules.
Alexander said he is not sure how many licenses or applications the board will review. The most recent tranche of thousands of retail applicants — both with and without secured storefronts — continue to wait for an answer.
"But definitely, the priority is we need to get as many as we can," Alexander said. "And so this will go on for the next couple of months."