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Here’s How Cannabis Legalization Could Actually Pass in New York

Published on December 31, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020

As Democrats prepare to govern with majorities in both houses of New York’s legislature and a popularly re-elected governor, liberal priorities that have been bottled up since 2010 are on the verge of becoming a reality.

Expanded voting rights, an update to state abortion laws, a concerted effort to fight climate change, and a major overhaul of the state’s rent laws are major issues for the new Democratic trifecta to tackle.

But not to be forgotten is a push to finally legalize cannabis for adult use, the potential passage of which is in sight thanks to support from the Assembly, state Senate, Department of Health, and governor.

Cuomo Changes His Mind

Legal cannabis wasn’t a huge issue during New York’s general election, but it emerged as a spotlight issue in the primary between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon.

Nixon loudly embraced legalization and found traction on the issue. Her success led Cuomo to order a Department of Health study on the issue, which returned the conclusion that “the positive effects of a regulated marijuana market in NYS outweigh the potential negative impacts.”

Legalization, the Health Department suggested, could cut down on disproportionate drug prosecutions in poor and non-white communities, provide a better regulation of the substance for sale, and raise a significant amount of tax revenue for a state that spends heavily. After the release of the report, Cuomo abandoned his long-held opposition to legalization.

Since then, momentum of the issue has only increased. Earlier this month, the governor declared that legalization is one of his top priorities for 2019 and pledged to get it done in his state budget proposal. While the final budget won’t be voted on by state legislators until April 1st, the budget process is very much shaped by the governor’s whims and usually done behind closed doors with the leaders of the Assembly and state Senate.

Simply saying he supports a policy doesn’t guarantee that it will survive in budget negotiations, of course. Advocates for voter reform, for example, have seen their priorities fall short in numerous budgets despite nominal rhetorical support from the governor.

Legalization Allies in the State Senate and Assembly

State Sen. Liz Krueger, sponsor of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, supports the use of the budget process to push the issue. “I do think the budget is an appropriate place to consider this legislation, because it has significant fiscal implications, both in savings of law enforcement resources and, of course, in revenue generated through taxation,” Krueger wrote to Leafly via email. “We will have to determine where that revenue is used, and I have some opinions about that, but budget negotiations are the right place for that discussion.”

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Krueger was recently appointed head of the New York State Senate Finance Committee, the same committee that stalled her bill under the previous Republican-controlled state Senate. So while Krueger feels that the Democratic majority in the state Senate and support for the governor are the most important factors for the passage of the bill, advocates will still have a friend in a position of power if a cannabis legalization plan doesn’t make it through the budget.

But the odds of that happening seem low. In a preview of his State of the State speech, there was talk that Gov. Cuomo has established a framework for a plan to legalize marijuana. While the framework wasn’t mentioned, the governor did say: “Let’s legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana once and for all,” for the first time in his tenure as governor.

The New York State Assembly will also have an advocate for legal marijuana in a position of power. Assembly Member Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a legislator from the Buffalo area and sponsor of the Assembly’s version of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, was just named the majority leader of the Democratic conference. In a press release announcing her status as the second-in-command of the Democratic Conference, Speaker Carl Heastie noted Peoples-Stokes’ commitment to “repairing the disproportionate harm drug policing does in communities of color.”

Support for Peoples-Stokes blunts the argument that cannabis legalization is simply being pushed by wild-eyed downstate liberals. Legalization support can also be found in the upstate listening sessions of the Department of Health. Some opposition to legalization remains from county health department officials across the state, but even then, the group laid out a framework for restrictions and safeguards aimed at allaying those worries.

Optimism for Advocates

With legalization allies in powerful positions in both houses of the New York State legislature and in the governor’s mansion, advocates are as optimistic as they’ve ever been. “It’s always impossible to tell, and I don’t want to jinx us, but I think there’s a tremendous amount of momentum for legalization,” Melissa Moore of the Drug Policy Alliance told Leafly. “The question at this point is what the actual framework for an adult use program will look like.”

Moore stressed that the DPA and other advocates are looking for Cuomo to keep connecting legalization to frameworks of criminal justice reform—something he did in his speech last week—and social justice. Focus on expunging criminal records, preventing the eventual legal market from favoring moneyed interests and huge growers, and investing in communities that have been negatively impacted by the drug war, will carry the momentum from this year’s election into next year’s legislative session. Once a framework for legalization is in place, Moore said, the state already has an example of small business support to draw from.

“I think it’s encouraging to look at what the governor has done in terms of encouraging the craft beer and wine industry in New York State, and trying to put forth provisions that help smaller businesses in that arena be able to actually get a foothold to be competitive and grow and thrive,” Moore said. “And I think that’s something that we would certainly encourage him to look for in marijuana legalization as well.”

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David Colon
David Colon
David Colon is a reporter from Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in Brokelyn, Vice, The Village Voice, and other publications.
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