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Cash Crop: How New York hopes to use a plant to boost the economy

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JOHNSON CITY (WBNG) -- Marijuana is once again on the brink of legalization in New York, but this time, it comes with an extra boost.

The pandemic thrashed the economy, leaving millions of Americans out of work and local governments looking for ways to rebound. Governor Andrew Cuomo had an idea.

It's not the first time he's pushed to legalize the adult-use of recreational marijuana. In fact, it's the third time.

The first time, the proposal fell apart in the waning hours of the state's budget process as lawmakers couldn't agree on where the tax revenue would go.

The second time, a pandemic hit, forcing the state to push through a basic budget without including things like recreational marijuana legalization.

This year, a renewed look at the budget after the financial downturn of 2020 has left the state with a deficit that must be filled. Governor Cuomo believes that marijuana could be the answer. "We also propose legalizing adult-use cannabis which will raise about $350 million," Cuomo said during his budget address in January.

Amid the economic optimism, some local leaders are skeptical that recreational marijuana legalization will be the spur that Cuomo hopes it can be.

Broome County Executive Jason Garnar points to history as the example. "About five years ago, they allowed medicinal marijuana. The county, in a different administration, took a look at it and thought through taxes... they could get $800,000 to $850,000 per year in medical marijuana revenues. The first year, the actual revenues came in at $2,000," he said.

Under Governor Cuomo's proposal, the county would receive 4% sales tax revenue, with another 4% going to the state.

Garnar believes the county will incur public safety costs that could wipe out that revenue.

Cornell Associate Professor Carlyn Buckler says federal restrictions are the divider between researchers and a better understanding of the benefits of the plant. "This is our first rodeo with this. This whole industry, for as long as the 30 years I've been a scientists, I've never seen anything like this where you have something in front of you, this plant, and we haven't been able to touch it," Buckler said.

That's because of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which listed marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, meaning it has no medical use and is highly addictive.

Heroin and ecstasy are also schedule 1 drugs.

"We haven't been able to do any genetics or medical tests on it for decades and decades," she said.

Since the 1960s, the University of Mississippi has been the only institution that has been federally cleared to study marijuana and THC's impact on humans.

"So there's one institution in the entire United States that's been able to do these studies. That's insane. That's ridiculous," Buckler said.

Kaelan Castetter believes his company is in a position to succeed if recreational use marijuana is legalized in New York. He's a Binghamton High School and Binghamton University graduate who started his own hemp company, Empire Standard.

Should the company grow according to his plan, Castetter believes he can create jobs for people in the Southern Tier.

He hopes to restore a sense of pride in the greater Binghamton area, and believes that a revamped economy can do that.

"It means everything to me because I really believe in what Binghamton can be. The reason we call it the green valley of opportunity is because it was already dubbed the valley of opportunity," he said.

"I think we can bring that back," Castetter added.

Kienan Dixon

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