Gov. Cuomo Bails on New York Cannabis Legalization

Published on May 13, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020
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.'

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.'

“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.”

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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.

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Max Savage Levenson
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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