After Budget Setback, What’s Next for Legalization in New York?Max Savage LevensonMarch 31, 2019
Legalization seemed like a done deal back in January. Then the wheels came off the bus.
Not long ago, legal cannabis in New York seemed like a done deal. In January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared that legalization would be among his top priorities for the first 100 days of his coming term.
Democrats had just re-taken the statehouse. Projections showed immense revenue to be gained from legalizing cannabis. New York City residents were particularly eager to use the money to help fix their ailing public transit system.
But in the ensuing months, confidence faltered among industry insiders, advocates and legislators alike.
Not Easy to Please Everyone
A wide-ranging list of factors contributed to the dissolution: skepticism among lawmakers in more conservative upstate districts; apprehension among progressive lawmakers that the bill didn’t do enough to address questions of diversity, equity or an appropriate allocation of tax revenue; pressure from the state’s existing medical marijuana companies to write the legislation in their favor; pushback from anti-legalization, education and police groups; and the decision of multiple counties to preemptively opt out of cannabis sales.
Now, after what has felt like a saga, complete with myriad twists and turns, state legislators have finalized their annual $175 billion budget, and adult-use cannabis legislation will not be included in the final document.
This isn’t the end for legalization in New York in 2019, however. There’s still a chance of passing a standalone legalization bill before the year is out.
Battling to the End
Early last week, advocates sensed the increasing inevitability of legalization falling out the budget. They rallied at the statehouse in Albany last Wednesday, as captured in this video by Never Not Productions. “People with chronic illnesses, lawyers doctors, moms, dads, [everyone] who wanted their voices to be heard [took buses to Albany],” said Kassia Graham, the National Project Leader for the non-profit organization Cannaclusive.
As Graham recounted, more than 300 activists arrived at the statehouse before the legislators, who eventually had to make their way through the impassioned crowd. “They heard and saw us in a very real manner,” she told Leafly.
Exasperation with Cuomo
Many activists expressed frustration and said that Cuomo’s recent public comments—which suggested, prematurely, that cannabis wouldn’t be included in the budget—contributed significantly to the halting of negotiations.
“Governor Cuomo is primarily responsible for stalled negotiations, as he publicly put the brakes on talks for legalizing in the budget only to make contrary statements this week,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Further fanning the flames of frustration with the governor, the New York Post reported last week that, despite his calls to “create [a cannabis] industry that empowers the poor communities that pay the price and not the rich corporations who come in to make a profit,” Cuomo allegedly accepted $150,000 in donations from marijuana lobbyists. The day before, the New York Times reported an off-the-books “pay-to-play” fundraising dinner for Cuomo—with a $25,000 price tag—which was allegedly attended by at least one out-of-state cannabis CEO.
Legalization Is a Complex Business
Cuomo, for his part, retains some lukewarm optimism that a legalization bill will be modified and passed during the current legislative session, which ends in June. “It is complex, and it’s the devil is in the details…if it’s not done after the budget, I believe we get it done after the budget,” he said last week.
Other legislators are less confident that a standalone bill can pass outside of this year’s budget—or anytime in the next couple of years, for that matter.
“We have a lot of members who represent conservative areas who don’t think they can vote for a freestanding bill to legalize marijuana,” said state Sen. Diane Savino. “If it’s not in the budget, we can’t pass it this year. And if we can’t pass it in an off election year, we won’t pass it in an election year [next year].”
Tyrone Stevens, a Cuomo aide, echoed those concerns ahead of the April 1 deadline. “Many are concerned that if this issue is not addressed in the budget it is more difficult to address out of the budget,” he said. “[Yet] we will be engaging with the legislature, either way, to discuss how we can advance this policy.”
There is a way forward. It may take a little while. Many advocates are working hard to help craft a legal cannabis bill that benefits all New Yorkers, not just powerful business interests. That attitude was summed up by Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Marijuana legalization may not be in the New York budget, but we’ve built a strong campaign,” she wrote via Twitter on Friday. “In both New York and New Jersey, we’re going to get there, and do it the right way.”