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Empire state lawmakers may approve recreational marijuana in face of massive budget deficit

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ALBANY —New York’s coronavirus fiscal crunch could spark renewed interest in legal weed.

Gov. Cuomo said Thursday the Empire State’s massive budget deficit and the fact that voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a ballot measure legalizing marijuana this week will pressure lawmakers to reach a deal on recreational pot in the near future.

“I think this year it is ripe because the state is going to be desperate for funding,” the governor said during a radio interview on WAMC. “I think we’re going to get there this year.”

Garden State voters overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment on Election Day that allows lawmakers there to craft a system to license and regulate a recreational cannabis market.

The New Jersey ballot question asked voters to OK a 6.625% state tax on marijuana sales to those 21 or older and also permits local municipalities to charge another 2% tax.

A 20% tax on recreational marijuana in Massachusetts, where dispensaries opened to the public in 2018, brought in $122 million in revenue for the state over the first two fiscal years of sales there, the state reported in August.

New York lawmakers have struggled to approve legal cannabis in recent years despite Cuomo expressing support in 2018. Democrats, who control both chambers in the Legislature, have come close to passing a pot program but quibbles over how tax money will be distributed and the licensing process has stalled the efforts.

“New Jersey did it on the ballot, which in retrospect I think probably turned out to be the faster way to do it,” Cuomo said Thursday. “The question becomes about the money, the distribution and the power.”

The governor has advocated that the tax revenue from marijuana go to state coffers while some members of the Senate and Assembly believe the money should go directly to communities that have been adversely impacted by New York’s drug laws.

The governor, who has also pushed back on proposals that would raise taxes on the wealthy and other revenue-generating ideas, expressed confidence that New York’s fiscal woes will push lawmakers to fast-track the measure when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“I think that the pressure is going to be on because we’re going to need the money so badly,” he said. “And you have such a gap now, I think it’s going to be an easier conversation.”

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