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Gov. Cuomo Bails on New York Cannabis Legalization

May 13, 2019
Challenger Cynthia Nixon, in background, forced New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to back adult-use legalization last year. But Cuomo has embraced it only when it's politically expedient. (Craig Ruttle/AP)
Despite his frequent jabs at Donald Trump, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent finger-pointing regarding the state’s stalled cannabis legislation bears a striking resemblance to the president’s own tendency to throw his allies under the bus.

In interviews last week, Cuomo essentially called it quits on cannabis legalization in New York for the time being. After legalization failed to pass in the state’s budget last month, legislators and the governor alike vowed to work on a standalone bill that they could pass in the current legislative session, which ends on June 19.

Yet in the midst of their progress—a revised bill will likely be unveiled this week—the governor’s public statements undermined cannabis advocates in the State Assembly, and made it clear he is uninterested in pushing the bill.

Won’t Spend a Dime of Political Capital

Cuomo bailed on legalization just as the Legislature’s most ardent advocates looked to him for leadership. State Sen. Liz Krueger, a leading voice for legalization, noted recently that passing a standalone bill on adult-use cannabis would require “the governor’s strong support and willingness to use political capital to get this done.”

'If legislators are suggesting that I need to twist arms, that's a bad sign, because arm twisting doesn't work.'
Gov. Andrew Cuomo

A number of lawmakers are hesitant to support a standalone bill, for a variety of reasons. There’s a widely held belief that passing a legalization bill outside of the budget will be difficult for legislators who see supporting it as a political liability. A vote for a budget that includes legalization goes on the record as simply a vote for the budget. A vote for a standalone legalization bill goes on the record as a vote for cannabis—something legislators in more socially conservative districts fear could be used against them in the next election. The budget vote came and went last month, without a legalization clause within it. So now the only option is a standalone bill.

Instead of offering his support, Cuomo threw scorn on his colleagues in the statehouse for not coming through with the majority they promised. “When the Legislature starts to say, ‘We need the governor to get us votes,’ that’s legislative code for ‘We don’t have the votes,’” Cuomo said on Friday, in the midst of a press conference that he gave on a boat.

“If [legislators] are starting to suggest that I need to twist arms, that’s a bad sign, because arm twisting doesn’t work and it means they don’t have the political support,” he added a few hours later, on the WXXI radio program Connections with Evan Dawson.


After Budget Setback, What’s Next for Legalization in New York?

But Isn’t That What Governors Do?

As Cuomo himself acknowledged, however, sometimes his role as governor entails exactly that: twisting arms. “Marriage equality was an issue,” he cited as an example in his interview with Evan Dawson. “I had just come in as governor. People didn’t really understand it.” Although, as he pointed out, there was a legal precedent at play with marriage equality that’s not applicable to cannabis, his claim seemed to undermine his earlier argument that he can’t, or shouldn’t, step in to help the legalization measure.

'This was always going to be a heavy lift, so yes, we need the governor's full-throated support to accomplish it.'
State Sen. Liz Krueger

“This was always going to be a heavy lift, so yes, we need the governor’s full-throated support to accomplish it,” said Sen. Krueger.

Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), also pushed back against the governor’s claims:  “We are having thorough discussions of the proposal and are not aware of what the governor is talking about,” said Whyland. “We haven’t counted the votes and, with all due respect to the governor, the speaker has never needed him to twist arms.”

Other legislators believe the governor has simply given up on cannabis, for now. “I’ve worked with this man a long time now, so I know when he really wants to do something, he knows how to get down in the trenches and negotiate to a final solution,” said State Sen. Diane Savino, who sponsored New York’s medical marijuana bill in 2014. “I didn’t see that happening here, and I’m not sure why,” she added.

Savino speculated that Cuomo pointed fingers at legislators in order to dodge a PR bullet himself. “He was going to take it on the chin if it didn’t happen,” she said in an interview with Cannabis Wire. “And so, let the legislature take the blame. And that’s kind of the way it shook out.”


How the Cannabis Industry Defeated Legalization in New York

Backup Plan: Expanded MMJ Bill

Even with Cuomo’s support, a standalone bill was going to be a tough measure to move. “It really has no shot,” Savino said. “The truth is, there’s an awful lot of opposition to it.”

Still, advocates aren’t giving up

Last week four Assembly members introduced an expanded medical marijuana bill that could act as a stopgap measure until adult-use legislation is passed into law. New York’s current medical marijuana bill is lackluster at best. The list of qualifying conditions is limited, patients cannot purchase flower, and costs are extremely high. The expanded bill would make it easier to obtain a medical marijuana card, allow dispensaries to sell flower, facilitate cannabis research in the state, and provide a pathway to open new cannabis businesses.

That bill is currently in committee. It’s unclear if or when it will move to the floor for a vote.

Throughout the drama, cannabis activists remain committed to their fight. On May 29th, they will return to Albany for a final Marijuana Justice lobbying day.

Max Savage Levenson's Bio Image

Max Savage Levenson

Max Savage Levenson likely has the lowest cannabis tolerance of any writer on the cannabis beat. He also writes about music for Pitchfork, Bandcamp and other bespectacled folk. He co-hosts The Hash podcast. His dream interview is Tyler the Creator.

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  • Karol Hudson

    Fire the proof reader, and the person who paid the author of this

  • sedgwick

    I’d like to go to Albany for lobbying day. Is there someone I should contact someone for details?

    • FlunkedAgain

      Go to Albany with a RECALL Petition. That’s a good way to get their attention.

  • FlunkedAgain

    And in Massachusetts, New Yorkers are paying MA cannabis taxes. It’s more lucrative for MA than a speed trap.

    It also means keeping track of the Menus so when your favorite strain reappears, you can swoop in and pick some up.

  • jontomas

    Oof! – We could have had Cynthia Nixon!

  • Tiny Price

    Oh he knows very well what he did …it was just for votes he never intended to do anything about that law.. That’s how all the crooked or unfair cops make all the arrest of blacks or minority..what would they do without it!!!..with the famous supposedly smelling weed. Why would he do a thing like that and make a change that could affect many.. Forget peoples lives they are still talking about the dangers.. Welp stop ciggs and alcohol as well.i xan bet he takes a swing of a drink and a smoke so it doesnt effect him at all. Cuomo is a real jerk for that.lost faith in that one..

  • Aisling

    “A vote for a standalone legalization bill goes on the record as a vote for cannabis—something legislators in more socially conservative districts fear could be used against them in the next election.”
    Sooo… politics as usual (i.e., “getting reelected is more important than the health and well-being of our constituents. We can’t take a chance on losing this taxpayer funded salary and health care so we’ll err on the side of caution just in case. Meanwhile, let’s make sure that prescription medications, cigarettes and alcohol flow freely.” Got it. I wish I could say that I was surprised…

    • SP5618

      Como SUCKS !!!

  • Toad Wallop

    All you guys need is them to sell flower for medicinal, and have pain on the list of conditions, and then anyone can get it. That’s how it is in Maryland now. I don’t even care if they pass recreational here now, because it won’t change anything for me. I’m never going back to it being illegal. I just have to go to the doctor once a year and pay a 100 bucks, and renew the card every 5 years for 50 bucks. Maybe in 5 years I won’t even have to do that, though, that’s still awhile off. We’ll see, maybe the whole country will legalize in that much time.

    • SP5618

      In NY Payed $129.00 1 a year Price product 2 high

      • Toad Wallop

        You guys can’t buy buds in NY, so it’s pretty useless in my opinion. I lived in Albany for 8 years, and if I still did, I’d go to Mass. to buy weed. I’m never leaving Maryland with the medical program we have here. It’s like how it was in Cali before recreational, where anyone can get a card, easy. I love it!

  • I’m an egg

    Unless half the money goes to blacks, the black legislators are not going to pass it. Welcome to 2019