Power to the People: cannabis legalization and the New York City Community Boards
Last night Manhattan Community Board Number 8 overwhelmingly voted to adopt a resolution concerning cannabis legalization. In essence it calls upon the state legislators who represent Community Board 8 in the Senate and Assembly to take action to cause a "serious discussion" of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act ("MRTA"), i.e. the proposed full legalization statute introduced by Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Member Crystal People-Stokes.
The vote was something like 29-5 (as related to me by someone else who was there); I started counting too late to record the exact numbers but I could tell from the consistent "yes" votes that it was a landslide.
I consider this event a very big deal. Adoption of this resolution means that part of a municipal government is calling upon part of the state government to hold a discussion of legalization. I'm not aware of anything like this happening before.
New York City Community Boards are very interesting institutions. They are the part of New York City government with the lowest barriers to entry for the public. The City is divided up into 59 Community Board districts. The Boards hold general monthly meetings that are open to the public at which members of the public can speak. There are also numerous committees, such as health, public safety, youth, economic development, and so on that meet as well and, at least according to my experience, are also open to the public.
One feature of the Community Boards is extremely relevant to cannabis legalization. Although different Community Boards may have different committees, there is one committee they have in common: the State Liquor Authority Committee ("SLAC"). A business seeking an initial liquor license in New York City or renewal of its license will first present its application to the local Community Board via the SLAC, which then presents its position to the full Board, which then presents its position on the application to the State Liquor Authority. Now, since its intent is to regulate cannabis like alcohol, the MRTA gives regulatory authority over cannabis to the State Liquor Authority, i.e. that administrative agency becomes a cannabis regulator in addition to being an alcohol regulator. (That is the basic mechanism of general legalization: regulating cannabis like alcohol means putting regulatory authority in the liquor control authority - or a new similar authority - as opposed to the Department of Health, which in New York under Governor Cuomo treats cannabis like a severe threat to public safety.) In practice, that means that persons seeking licenses to operate cannabis businesses will also need to present their applications to the Community Boards preliminary to their applications to the State Liquor Authority. Since the Community Boards will play a fundamental role in implementing cannabis market legalization at such time as the MRTA is enacted, Community Board buy-in is important and can, perhaps, best be cultivated by beginning a dialogue now with Community Boards as to how legalization would work.