After years of political wrangling, the New York State legislature voted to legalize recreational marijuana use this week. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the legislation on Wednesday, less than a day after the State Senate and Assembly approved it.
The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act legalizes marijuana possession under three ounces in the state, and permits a regulated and taxed market to launch in April 2022. Anyone previously convicted of possessing less than three ounces of marijuana will have the opportunity to have their criminal records expunged.
The law also requires 40% of the tax revenue generated from legalization to be re-invested in nonwhite communities that had disproportionate numbers of marijuana arrests, and looks to enable those communities to participate in the new, legal market.
The vast majority of Brooklyn’s State Senators and Assemblymembers voted in favor of the bill—many viewing it, as central Brooklyn State Senator Zellnor Myrie said yesterday, “a huge step toward restorative justice.”
But some Brooklyn legislators felt differently.
In the State Senate, Democratic Senator Simcha Felder was the lone no vote from Brooklyn. In the Assembly, two conservative southern Brooklyn Democrats, Senators William Colton and Simcha Eichenstein, voted against legalization, as did newly-elected Republican Mike Tannousis.
In a statement explaining his vote, Tannousis, whose district includes a portion of Bay Ridge and parts of Staten Island, argued the proposal “fails to deter individuals from driving-while-high, especially those who are under the age of 21.”
He said he planned to introduce follow-up legislation that he said would more explicitly prohibit driving while under the influence of marijuana. But other lawmakers who voted in favor said the existing legislation already included provisions to ensure safe usage.
“As a long time advocate for street safety, I wanted to ensure that the final bill took a comprehensive approach to deterring and punishing impaired driving,” Senator Andrew Gounardes, a southern Brooklyn Democrat, said in a statement after voting in favor of the legislation. “This bill will do exactly that by developing a first of its kind saliva test and implementing it once approved by the NYS Department of Health.”
Another southern Brooklyn lawmaker expressed concern about impaired driving even as he voted in favor of the bill.
Assembly Member Steven Cymbrowitz said it was “troubling that the definition of impaired driving while under the influence of marijuana remains unresolved.”
He nevertheless called the bill “important legislation that will use revenue from adult-use marijuana to invest in education and bring justice to communities that have been disproportionately and unfairly targeted by state and federal drug laws.”
Felder, Colton and Eichenstein did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Bklyner.
Also notable was the vote in favor cast by East New York State Senator Roxanne Persaud, who had voted against an earlier legalization effort in 2019.
“While I remain concerned about what legalization says to young people, there is no debating that Black and brown New Yorkers have long borne the brunt of a policy that other New Yorkers could disregard with impunity,” Persaud told Brooklyn Paper in a statement.
Elsewhere in the borough, lawmakers were more unequivocal in their support.
Progressive State Senator Jabari Brisport, a Democrat who represents parts of central Brooklyn, told New York State Public Radio that when he was 19, he was walking in Manhattan with a friend whom a plainclothes police officer mistook for a wanted drug dealer.
Brisport, who is Black, said the officer pointed a gun in his face after he asked the officer to display his badge and read his friend their rights.
“A plainclothes police officer nearly shot me in the face over weed,” Brisport told NYS Public Radio’s Karen DeWitt. “How many would-be future state senators have been accidental casualties of the war on drugs?”
And Assembly Member Phara Souffrant Forrest—who, like Brisport, is a newly-elected, DSA-backed Democratic legislator from central Brooklyn—simply tweeted “Legalize it!” with a gif of you-know-who.
Legalize it! pic.twitter.com/ZNHTf9nAH4
— Phara Souffrant Forrest (@phara4assembly) March 31, 2021