While New York legislators signed into law a plan to legalize marijuana last week, a chunk of the Queens Democratic delegation was not on board.
The state Senate voted last Tuesday 40-23 to pass the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, and the Assembly voted 100-49 in favor of the bill. Four of Queens’ legislators, who are all Democrats, voted against the bill — all of them from the southwestern section of the borough.
State Sen. Joseph Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) and Assemblymembers Brian Barnwell (D-Maspeth), Stacey Pheffer Amato (D-Rockaway Park) and Jenifer Rajkumar (D-Woodhaven) each had sticking points that they say the large, multipronged law did not address.
The law makes it so that people 21 and older will be able to grow and use marijuana. The law also establishes a regulated marijuana market, with tax revenues split between the state and localities. It will also expunge criminal records of those convicted of low-level marijuana offenses.
The state estimates the industry will create $350 million in taxes annually and has the potential to create 30,000 to 60,000 jobs.
For both Addabbo and Pheffer Amato the primary concerns revolved around driving under the influence of pot. Rajkumar, on the other hand, said that she had overwhelming health concerns about the effects of a legalized marijuana industry.
Addabbo talked about his vote on the phone for this story. Rajkumar and Pheffer Amato both provided written statements to the Chronicle. Barnwell did not respond to calls from the Chronicle.
Addabbo raised a point that was brought up by police and some Republican lawmakers that the bill doesn’t do enough to address the issue of driving while impaired.
He said that there are currently no accurate roadside tests to detect marijuana in an impaired driver, which could present obstacles to preventing impaired driving.
“I think we should have waited for technology to catch up to us to give law enforcement a chance to credibly address the issue,” Addabbo said.
Though he said he heard arguments from advocates of the bill saying that it will take roughly a year for the state to implement the dispensaries and have widespread effect by making marijuana more widely available, the rest of the law takes effect immediately. He said that he couldn’t conscience the idea of an accident happening in the interim.
Pheffer Amato said it was difficult for her to come to a decision on the bill, but she had a similar sticking point.
“Ultimately, I believe we missed an opportunity to adequately close current loopholes and bring the DUI laws up to the level that they need to be with the potential for increased marijuana use and legal distribution,” she said. “I will continue to work with my colleagues in the legislature to close these loopholes and strengthen our DUI laws so that we can have a safe and effective implementation of this new act.”
Addabbo also said he had concerns over the penalties for selling to a minor, which be believed in some instances to be too lenient, and the legalization of personal cultivation.
Rajkumar also said that she fully supported the law’s criminal justice reforms and the automatic expungement of marijuana convictions and she thought the end to the discriminatory enforcement of cannabis laws is a long overdue win for civil rights that will uplift minority communities.
However, she said she opposed the creation of a marijuana industry.
“The commodification of marijuana will allow businesses to exploit the health of New Yorkers, much the same way Purdue Pharma exploited people with opioids and Big Tobacco with cigarettes,” she said. “As the daughter of doctors who work in drug addiction medicine, I have seen firsthand how drug addiction has ruined lives. I know too many constituents who have lost a child to drugs. I could not in good conscience vote for a law that could have a detrimental effect on the health of New Yorkers.”