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Eleventh-Hour Efforts Target Marijuana-Hesitant Lawmakers

Governor Cuomo discussing the state budget in March
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Governor Cuomo discussing the state budget in March Hans Pennink/AP/Shutterstock

Supporters of a stalled bill to legalize marijuana are working hard to revive it, while opponents are trying equally hard to kill it. And Governor Andrew Cuomo is … well, it’s not clear.

“You didn’t hear it from me, but three-ways are back on,” one lawmaker said Friday, referring to negotiations among aides to Governor Cuomo, the Assembly, and the State Senate—but fearful of repercussions from Cuomo.

Within the hour, one of several marijuana lobbyists meeting with Cuomo’s point man on pot, Axel Bernabe, said that Bernabe denied any such talks were taking place.

With just a few days left for New York to legalize marijuana, why would Cuomo’s office insist they weren’t negotiating?

Veteran Albany insiders aren’t sure, and they say Cuomo’s apparent hands-off strategy has them scratching their heads.

“It’s not just marijuana - it’s everything: with almost no time left, there haven’t been any three-ways to speak of,” said one pot industry lobbyist, echoing several others. “It’s unheard of. I’m as mystified as anyone else.”

Over the past three weeks, Cuomo has said it’s up to Senate Democrats to rally their own troops. They have the strongest majority they’ve had in decades, after making big gains last Election Day, but many members have said they’re ambivalent about New York joining the ranks of Massachusetts, Colorado and California. They say they’re still working their way through the latest proposals, talking to people on all sides and trying to decide what’s best for their constituents and the state.

“I’m hearing a lot of concerns from the law enforcement community,” said Senator James Gaughran (D-Northport). “They’re concerned about road safety and driving under the influence, and there’s no blood test like there is for alcohol.”

Gaughran is one of six recently elected Democrats on Long Island who have opposed or withheld support for several of the party’s liberal initiatives this year, including rent reform and authorization of drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants. But the marijuana-hesitant contingent in the senate is even broader, also encompassing both new and veteran senators from Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Westchester, the Hudson Valley and points north and west.

“The numbers are for sure tough,” said another marijuana lobbyist. “If [Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins] said, ‘Let’s jam the governor,’ it might help, but it’s far from clear she’s willing to do that, or should do that, just to pass something this controversial with the barest majority.”

Observers are more confident of winning over the much more left-leaning Assembly, though even in that chamber, there are concerns about passing the marijuana bill. The Assembly has approved earlier versions of the current proposal several times in years past, but as a top Cuomo administration official said, “that was when they always knew it had no chance of passing the [Republican-controlled] Senate.”

That lobbyist credited opponents of legal marijuana with being “well-organized and savvy.”

“We weren’t working together well during the budget process [earlier in the session], and we got killed in the press by the PTA,” said the lobbyist. “Law enforcement raised some valid concerns, and their point of view commands a lot of respect, as it should.”

Lobbyists say that Bernabe and Cuomo appear to enthusiastically support a pair of cannabis bills that would expand the existing medical marijuana and hemp programs, rather than authorize the drug for recreational use. Bernabe could not be reached for comment.

Unless the governor or legislature extend the session next week, all bills must be submitted—at least in some form—by midnight Monday, in order to be voted on Wednesday, the last scheduled day of the 2019 session.

In the coming days, supporters and opponents of legal marijuana say they’re targeting their efforts on the ten or so senators who are up in the air.

“If people care about legalization, they need to call or email their legislators,” said Josh Weinstein, who runs an entrepreneurial marijuana meetup company called CannaGather but has joined the ranks of pot advocates. “They’re actively listening, and this will be top of mind for them.”

Fred Mogul is the Albany and politics reporter for WNYC. You can follow him on Twitter @fredmogul.

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