For much of his time in office, Governor Andrew Cuomo was dismissive of the calls to legalize recreational marijuana. He once derided weed as a “gateway drug” and only seemed to pivot when Cynthia Nixon ran a long-shot primary against him last year. Now Cuomo is a convert to the cause and a newly empowered Democratic State Senate appears ready to make New York the eleventh state to legalize marijuana.
But many roadblocks remain, and what once seemed inevitable is anything but. Cuomo announced recently he was dropping a proposal to legalize marijuana from his executive budget. On Tuesday morning, however, Cuomo assured Brian Lehrer, "Let's be clear, it is on the table and we're still talking about it."
In practice, this means hopes legalization advocates had of achieving their goal before the new fiscal year on April 1st are in jeopardy. There will be time in April, May and June during the legislative session to round up the votes to pass a bill, though more time is not necessarily a good thing.
In New Jersey, a vote to legalize pot was projected to happen yesterday, though it was called off at the last minute. Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, and legislative leaders announced they had reached an agreement to legalize and tax marijuana for adults 21 and older. Two other bills would also expand New Jersey’s medical marijuana program and expunge thousands of pot convictions in the state. It's unclear when a vote will actually be held.
Opponents of marijuana legalization in New York will have several months to organize and potentially peel away Democrats in swing districts who are leery of riling up their more conservative constituents. State Senator Diane Savino, Staten Island Democrat and longtime supporter of legalizing pot, said recently she was not optimistic legalization could happen with a free-standing bill. In Albany, lawmakers like to hash out major policy in the state budget. The process, typically rushed at the last minute, allows legislators to include controversial items in a general $175 billion budget and dodge tougher votes.
A spokesman for State Senator Liz Krueger, the Manhattan Democrat carrying legislation to legalize and tax marijuana, told Gothamist budget talks are “ongoing,” declining to offer any new information. Both legislative leaders—Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins—support legalization efforts but have a significant number of rank-and-file lawmakers who have raised persistent questions about what legally selling and taxing weed would look like in New York.
Black legislators in Albany and the New York City Council, as well as progressive advocates, have threatened to derail the legalization push if the state doesn’t guarantee a portion of the money raised (as much as $300 million annually) from taxing pot is channeled into an economic equity program to help people of color who have been most impacted by marijuana-related arrests, as well as ensure minority and women-owned businesses can profit from a huge new business. In Colorado, black entrepreneurs said they were banned from winning business licenses because of marijuana-related convictions.
“It would be a travesty for New York to legalize marijuana in a way that doesn’t direct funding back to the communities hit hardest by criminalization,” said Melissa Moore, the deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “This type of reinvestment is crucial if we are going to close out the era of prohibition.”
Both legislative leaders are black, as well as the Assembly’s majority leader, Crystal Peoples-Stokes. They are fighting for a sweeping expungement of records related to marijuana arrests.
“Marijuana legalization in New York must prioritize social justice and economic opportunity for people of color," Peoples-Stokes, who represents Buffalo, told Gothamist. "For decades, Black and Brown communities have been harmed by the inequitable enforcement of marijuana prohibition. Any legislation which seeks to regulate and tax marijuana for adult use must repair those harms by committing to sealing, vacating and expunging the records of those convicted of low-level marijuana offenses, establishing equitable access to entry into the industry, and ensuring that resources are dedicated for the investment in communities most harmed."
Many advocates objected to Cuomo’s initial push to tie revenue raised from pot legalization to the MTA. Cuomo has since abandoned this proposal, instead supporting MTA fundraising through congestion pricing, as well as a new tax on highly-expensive, unoccupied second homes—though the latter proposal is currently losing momentum.
While legalizing marijuana remains popular, the opposition is only strengthening. Parent Teacher Associations, county health officials, and physician-related groups including the Medical Society and American Academy of Pediatrics are lining up against the legalization push, citing health risks. With Republicans in the Senate unified in their opposition, Democrats can only afford to lose so many votes. Only 15 Democrats, including Krueger, have currently signed onto legalization legislation.
Democratic county executives in Nassau and Suffolk Counties said recently they would take advantage of a possible “opt-out” proposal to ban selling marijuana on Long Island. Six Democratic state senators represent the suburban counties and the announcements by their county executives could persuade them to vote against a legalization bill.
Opponents typically focus on the health risks associated with smoking marijuana and the potential for motorists to drive while high.
“The consensus is that using marijuana regularly does alter areas of the brain that are involved in cognition and thought processes in memory and learning,” Dr. Frank Dowling, a Long Island psychiatrist working with the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, tells WNYC's Fred Mogul. “And the long-term usage, especially as a teen or young adult, can lead to long-term cognitive issues, even if someone stops using later on in life.”
Cannabis legalization advocates, meanwhile, argue that it's nearly impossible for an adult to overdose from marijuana, and have long pointed to the high death toll from alcohol-related illnesses, as well as alcohol poisoning from binge drinking, and accidents resulting from alcohol abuse.
Law enforcement unions are also firmly against legalization, citing the difficulty of detecting whether someone behind the wheel has ingested or smoked pot beyond the legal limit. These unions are particularly potent in the suburbs, where a large percentage of their membership resides.
At the heart of the debate isn’t just a question of criminal justice or the possible damage to children: it’s how much legalizing marijuana will suddenly flood the market with a once illegal drug. New York is already home to a thriving marijuana black market. In 2017 alone, New York City topped all global cities, consuming about 77 metric tons of pot that year.
With so much marijuana already in circulation, proponents of legalization simply hope to regulate and tax it, sending much-needed cash into state coffers. Five years after Colorado legalized weed, it doesn’t appear young people are smoking pot more than they used to. It’s unclear whether driving has become more dangerous.
For New York, the greater challenge may be ending the black market altogether. With enough time, more pot sales become legal. Sixty-six percent of pot sales are projected to be legal in Colorado this year. Massachusetts, which legalized marijuana in 2017, only projects to have 24 percent of pot sold legally.
With elections looming in 2020, the next three months may determine whether we ever see legal weed in New York. The stakes have never, for lack of a better word, been higher.