How Cynthia Nixon Changed the New York Cannabis Game

The #CynthiaEffect forced Gov. Andrew Cuomo to move on issues he'd long ignored--like cannabis legalization. (J. Conrad Williams Jr./Newsday, Orbon Alija/iStock)

On a balmy summer night in late June, the lobby of Galvanize, a chic urban workspace in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood, was filled with fashionable young women, many donning high heels, sharp dresses, and clutching stylish purses. They were there for a fundraising event for Cynthia Nixon, hosted by a group of cannabis industry leaders in New York City.

'I am Cynthia Nixon,” said the actress-turned-politician, 'and I am the cannabis candidate for New York governor.'

If you squinted, it looked like the kind of crowd that Miranda, her character in Sex and the City, would have hung out with. In reality, though, it was a kind of a celebratory meeting of two rising forces in New York: the city’s hip, young cannabis entrepreneurs; and the television star who suddenly became a serious candidate for governor of New York.

Stars of the industry circulated around the buzzing loft-like space: Lynsey Ayala, creator of the Brooklyn craft botanical line BreadxButta; Marta Freedman and Charlotte Palermino, founders of the cannabis media startup Nice Paper; Mae Karwowski, founder of the marketing tech firm Obviously; and Women Grow pioneer and former CEO Jazmin Hupp.

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Unlike some of the other “Cynthia for New York” events I’d attended over the past few months, the crowd had a real energy and excitement to it. Many of the organizers and attendees were women, and there was an upbeat buzz about a female candidate on the side of the cannabis industry. If there was any doubt about that, Nixon erased it with her opening line.

“I am Cynthia Nixon,” she said, taking the microphone to raucous cheers, “and I am the cannabis candidate for New York governor.”

That’s something her opponent, two-term Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has never said. It is a phrase that has likely never crossed the lips of any serious candidate for governor in the 230-year history of the Empire State.

She may not beat Cuomo in the Democratic primary on Sept. 12, but Cynthia Nixon has changed New York.

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Four years ago an obscure law professor and political activist named Zephyr Teachout challenged Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York’s Democratic primary. She had a surprising modicum of success, garnering 34 percent of the vote.

Teachout’s performance opened a wormhole in progressive circles in New York. If a no-name (if oddly named) challenger could cut into the base of a powerhouse like Cuomo, who many regarded as being too satisfied with the status quo, maybe a well-liked celebrity with rich friends could do her one better.

Using celebrity to get past the gates is a move straight from Donald Trump’s playbook, of course. But instead of using her star power to inflate her ego, Nixon has used it to illuminate causes that many traditional politicos would not touch.

High on that list is the legalization of cannabis. Though New York state passed a highly restrictive medical marijuana law in 2014, it has yet to go the Full Monty and legalize it for adult use. When asked why the famously liberal state lagged on the issue, most political observers point to one person: Andrew Cuomo.

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The Gov’s Old-School Thinking

An old-school Democratic tough-on-crimer out of the Clinton mold, Cuomo has long been an icon of past-generation liberal thinking on cannabis. New York’s voters and state legislators had to drag him kicking and screaming to legalize an ultra-strict medical marijuana system. He didn’t like it, he doesn’t want it, he barely tolerates it. Adult-use legalization? Fuhgettaboutit.

Then, in March of this year, Nixon announced her candidacy. Almost from the beginning, she hammered away at the injustice and nonsense of New York State’s cannabis laws. “I’m absolutely for the legalization of marijuana,” Nixon told Wendy Williams on April 11. “Let’s capture some of that revenue.” When she got knocked for advocating on fiscal grounds alone, she posted a YouTube video to clarify her position:

‘Stop Putting People of Color in Jail’

“There are a lot of good reasons for legalizing marijuana, but for me it comes down to this: We have to stop putting people of color in jail for something that white people do with impunity,” Nixon said.

“Eighty percent of the New Yorkers who are arrested for marijuana are black or Latino despite the fact that whites and people of color use marijuana at roughly the same rates. The consequences follow people for the rest of their lives, making it harder for them to get jobs or housing, and for non-citizens it puts them directly in the crosshairs for deportation,” she said.

“If there was more political courage coming out of Albany, we would have done this a long time ago. The simple truth is, for white people the use of marijuana has effectively been legal for a long time. Isn’t it time we legalized it for everybody else?”

In response, Cuomo said—and did—nothing.

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(Courtesy of New York Magazine)

In April, New York Magazine put Nixon on its cover, declaring that “Cynthia Nixon Has Already Won.”

She repeated the line that would become etched as a campaign mantra: Cuomo “presents himself as a progressive champion, but really nothing could be farther from the truth.”

Nixon continued to hit Cuomo on the legalization issue, on Twitter and in the media. As late as 2017, Cuomo proclaimed cannabis a “gateway drug,” even as more states proved out the success of legalization—and more than 20,000 New York State residents suffered arrest and incarceration due to prohibition. In early 2018, Cuomo signed off on a New York Department of Health study of legalization, due at the end of the year. “It is a hotly debated topic, pardon the pun,” he said, despite the absence of a pun, “and it would be nice to have some facts in the middle of the debate.”

Nixon preferred straight talk.

“Most Americans now agree: the war on drugs is racist and expensive. If we can admit that, then we can admit that it’s on our government to repair the damage done to communities of color across our country,” she wrote on May 7.

As governor, she vowed, it wouldn’t be just “rich white men who make billions off a product that sends thousands of black people to jail. We’re going to create jobs and opportunity in the communities most devastated by the racist war on drugs.”

The Nixon Tour: Hit-n-Miss

Over the summer, I went to a number of “Cynthia for New York” events in New York: one in the Bronx, which was supposed to be a launch for her thousands of volunteers setting out to collect signatures; an unveiling of her education policy (24 pages long) at the Borough of Manhattan Community College; and a multi-group rally outside the New York Public Library. Some of the events lacked the energy and buzz that would be expected from Nixon’s glowing press coverage. At the event in the Bronx, which was, politely speaking, under-attended, I asked a reporter if Nixon had grassroots support. He replied: “—ish.”

Nixon’s public events were tightly orchestrated by her handlers. Groups of people showed up more to see the TV star, and less to show their unabashed political support. I didn’t get the feeling that New York loved the prospect of Cynthia Nixon as governor, so much as the state’s denizens were meh on Cuomo.

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At the cannabis industry fundraiser in SoHo, many of the curious and the skeptical came away impressed.

When Tanya Osbourne, founder of CannaDiva and the New York market leader for Women Grow, said that when she heard Nixon was seriously running, “I had a little puzzle face on.” She had initially written off the former Sex and the City star as just another trying on a role in politics. But Osbourne got on board after hearing Nixon talk about cannabis.

Cannabis isn’t her only issue.

“What really struck me for her was her language,” Osbourne told me. “She was using language that other people weren’t using. It was just really forthright about the disparity between black people in the industry and non-black people in the industry,” which resonated with Osborne as a woman of color.

Nixon was “talking about how this market is going to be eaten up by the people who can afford it the most without saying the obvious.” The obvious being the fact that rich white men in legal states are now getting richer doing what poor black men have been arrested for doing since the late 1930s.

“She was just speaking the truth,” Osbourne added, “and I could get behind somebody who was actually using the language that is just the truth. Black people are underrepresented in the market, and if you are a rich white male you will probably be able to own a dispensary—and then the people in jail look like me.”

Cannabis: Political, Not Personal

For Nixon, cannabis legalization isn’t a personal crusade.

She talks easily and openly about how she’s sampled it in the past. “I tried it twice when I was in college,” she told The Cut. “It wasn’t for me, but I promised a number of people that when we legalize it in New York, I will give it another shot.”

Instead, she works in the tradition of legalization advocates like Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Rep. Tom Garrett (R-VA), politicians who don’t imbibe but work to end prohibition based on a variety of principles including social justice concerns, libertarian values, fiscal responsibility, and just plain common sense.

Like Blumenauer, Nixon unabashedly embraces the cannabis connection. Earlier this year she showed up at a 4/20 parade on April 20, added a 4/20 button to her site, and even gave away a Broad City bong with the help of Ilana Wexler and Abbi Jacobson, the two stars of the show.

Going Where Cuomo Wouldn’t

For those staking their money and their careers on the cannabis industry in a state where it’s still not fully legal, Nixon’s outspokenness is personal. It’s a vote of confidence from a public figure who created the role of a strong, bold character on TV—Miranda was in many ways the least retrograde and most relatable of the Sex and the City characters—and then embodied that courage and strength in real life.

In June, Nixon spent much of her time on the campaign trail listening to people of color speak.

And she’s campaigning in ways that always seem to highlight the divide between herself and Cuomo. She uses her white privilege to speak out on behalf of people whose voices are rarely heard.

In June, she spent much of her time on the campaign trail listening to people of color speak. At one event in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Nixon sat in on a roundtable featuring about a dozen high school age kids at The Center for Popular Democracy. Though there were more members of the press than participants (one reporter from The Root remarked that the scene reminded him of covering Trump), it was one of the more compelling campaign events that she held in those early summer weeks.

The kids were all mostly high school aged, a diverse bunch in terms of race and gender. A few identified as trans and went by “they,” their pronouns carefully marked on name tags. (“Cynthia, Her/She.”)

Kesi Foster, a coordinator at Urban Youth Collaborative, opened the floor. “Our school systems have put in place policies and practices that criminalize the normal behavior of young people. And that results in young people losing hundreds of thousands of days of instructional time because they’re being suspended. It literally results in young people being pulled out of a classroom and pulled into a courtroom, or pulled into our jails and prisons across the state.”

He rattled off statistics. Black students represent only about 17 percent of New York state’s student population, but they represent 44 percent of students referred to law enforcement. “We know that having police officers in schools makes it more likely that students are going to be referred to law enforcement, treating normal youthful behavior as disorderly conduct and other minor infractions.”

Real Life in School

One by one, the students told Nixon about how they have to go through metal detectors to get to class, how they have to wait 20 or 30 minutes to get inside, how once inside it feels like they are in a jail, because the police are inside, eyeballing their every move. They tell stories about how roughhousing can viewed as a criminal activity by the police.

The students' stories illustrate Nixon’s point: Being caught with cannabis as a person of color leads to a domino effect that can hurt for the rest of their lives.

One student explained the psychological effect of so much police presence.

“If your first interaction is a police officer yelling at you to remove things or yelling at you saying, ‘You should know better,’ all the rest of your day and sometimes the rest of your week—there’s just a lot of trauma that you’re holding in your body all day long.”

Nixon, wearing a dress with a suit jacket over it, listened intently and nodded her head.

Anooj Bhandari, who works with Make the Road New York as a restorative justice coordinator, told a story about two students who were each given a summons at school for marijuana possession. To fight the charges, they needed to be in court the same day as an exam required for graduation.

“When we think about the options that are given to young people in those moments, it [forces them to] choose: Do you want to have a warrant out for your arrest, or do you want to move closer to graduation?” he said. “If those are the options we’re providing for young people, we’re failing as a system of education.”

It’s a concrete example of Nixon’s point about marijuana legalization—how being caught with cannabis as a person of color leads to a domino effect that can hurt a young person for the rest of their lives.

Optimism in the Air

At the SoHo party, which is more glitz and glamour than Social Justice Warrior, there’s a hum of optimism in the air. Yes, some of that optimism is due to dollar signs—if cannabis is fully legalized, there are a million potential avenues for revenue, new businesses, and new technologies to be developed. But, the difference is that in a state like New York, that money, and all that possibility, can actually go to the communities of color that Nixon has vowed won’t be left behind under her watch, should she be elected.

'Her vision for New York is beautiful.'
Lulu Tsui, Co-founder of cannatech company Revel

In many of the legal adult-use states, a large majority of the population is white. Washington and Oregon, for instance, have populations that are more than 80 percent non-Latinx white. In Colorado, white people comprise 69 percent of the population. But New York state is much more diverse. In New York City, where many of the business owners in a legal market will be located, more than 64 percent of residents are people of color —black, Asian, Latinx, and Hispanic.

It’s unlikely that Nixon will overcome her tremendous disadvantage in the polls, despite a scrappy debate against the governor last week. But in early summer, there was still a glimmer of hope in the crowd at Galvanize.

One of the hosts, Lulu Tsui, a cofounder of the cannatech company Revel, was impressed with Nixon’s solutions. Those included pushing for automatic expungement of cannabis arrests, for instance. “I think it was a really great first introduction to having a conversation about cannabis,” Tsui said.

“And,” she says, “her vision for New York is beautiful.”