The Last Store on Main Street Coalition, a trade association encompassing thousands of wine and spirits retailers in New York, is lobbying lawmakers in Albany to allow sales of recreational marijuana if it’s legalized in the state. “We are not going to sit back and lose an opportunity,” says Jeff Saunders, founder of The Last Store on Main Street Coalition and owner of McCabe’s Wine & Spirits in Manhattan. “If recreational marijuana is legalized, we need to jump on it.”
The Coalition, a registered lobbying group based in Albany, formed about ten years ago when state lawmakers were considering the authorization of wine sales in grocery stores. The Coalition helped defeat that proposal, as it would hurt wine and spirits retailers. Now the group has a new cause. “It would be a high-class packaged product,” Saunders says of the proposed retail marijuana. “It would fit into my store.”
Saunders notes that wine and spirits retailers already operate under a highly regulated system that can be easily expanded to include marijuana sales. “We are the perfect fit for everybody dealing with controlled substances in our stores,” he says. “We sell a drug right now. You have to be proofed to come into my store. There are video cameras. Your ID goes through a machine. We are licensed by the state, and we went through the background checks.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced marijuana legalization plans to state lawmakers in Albany on January 15. Under his plan, marijuana growers, retailers, and distributors would each need separate state licenses. A 20% state tax and 2% local tax on sales from wholesalers to retailers is proposed, and growers would also pay a tax per gram. If legalized, marijuana is expected to generate approximately $300 million in tax revenue annually. Marijuana sales would be prohibited to anyone under the age of 21. In addition to the governor’s proposal, there are two other proposals for marijuana legalization from other government officials in the state.
In the aftermath of last November’s elections, Cuomo has strong support—with a significant majority of Democrats—in both the state Senate and Assembly, which bodes well for legalization efforts. “It’s going to be a successful product—it’s going to add revenue,” says Sunil Khurana, owner of Westchester Wine Warehouse in White Plains, of recreational marijuana.
While not all wine and spirits retailers are expected to have interest in selling marijuana, many see it as a golden business opportunity. “Most wine and spirits retailers would like it,” Saunders says. “They see the handwriting on the wall in other states. Marijuana sales are taking over alcohol sales.”
The New York State Department of Health supported legalizing marijuana in a 74-page report issued in July 2018. Cuomo, who ordered the study early last year, had previously opposed legalizing marijuana. Now, for regulating marijuana sales, Cuomo is to implement an Office of Cannabis Management.
Under Cuomo’s plan, legal marijuana sales could begin in April 2020. New York has been under increased pressure to allow marijuana sales ever since the drug was legalized in the neighboring states of Massachusetts and Vermont. Nearby New Jersey is also taking steps toward legalization. “In Westchester County, wine and spirits retailers so far are in favor of it,” Khurana says. “It’s going to add value and more revenue for stores.”