New York Legalization Is Coming Down to the Wire

Published on June 12, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020
New York Gov. Cuomo, once a supporter of cannabis legalization, now has become an obstacle.
Gov. Cuomo has gone from legalization advocate to serious obstacle. And there's only a week to go. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

With just a week to go before the end of New York’s legislative session, cannabis legalization is teetering between success and failure.

Tensions are running high among legislators and activists alike. The state Senate has gathered almost enough votes to pass its adult-use bill, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), yet Gov. Andrew Cuomo seems more interested in shifting the blame of a potential failure away from himself than helping persuade hesitant senators to join the cause.

The fate of adult-use legalization could hang on two votes.

Both pro- and anti-legalization organizations are making impassioned cases to lawmakers and the public. Adding to the chaos: Legislators have cooked up separate bills to expand the state’s bare-bones medical program and to regulate the state’s exploding CBD and hemp industry—but only if the adult-use bill falls through.

“It’s time to put a stop to [the War on Drugs],” said Assemblymember Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan). “We’re going to do our darndest… to make sure that this bill can come together and be passed by both houses and be signed by the governor.”

Will that be enough? Right now the outcome is too close to call.

Newfound Momentum

Legalization is expected to clear the State Assembly; in the Senate, however, the vote will likely hinge on just two votes.

Here’s how Jon Campbell and Joseph Spector, of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle’s Albany bureau, had the votes shaping up as of late last week:

Original data and graphic from the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle.

55% Support Among New Yorkers

A few recent events have given legalization advocates a dose of encouragement. A poll released Monday found that 55% of New Yorkers are in favor of legalization, with the bulk of the support coming from people under 35. Illinois’ recent success in passing adult-use legislation has also given New Yorkers hope. Lawmakers in swing districts, though, may still not be convinced to back the legalization bill out of fear of being voted out of office.

The United Auto Workers and the Farm Bureau are supporters. So are 55% of New Yorkers.

Some of New York’s most prominent unions have also come out in support of the bill. A few weeks ago, members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199, which represents over 250,000 health care workers, and the United Auto Workers (UAW), Region 9A, publicly stated its support of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act.

“If there’s a social justice fight, the United Auto Workers are there,” said Deborah Wright, the political director for UAW Region 9A. “This is particularly important to so many of us throughout the UAW,” she added. “The time has come.”

The New York Farm Bureau also announced its support of the legislation in a memo this week. “Given the current status of the farm economy in New York state, farmers recognize the potential opportunity the cultivation of cannabis could be for New York State’s agriculture industry,” Farm Bureau officials said in the memo.

Cuomo Points Fingers Instead of Twisting Arms

Those hints of optimism come amid an escalating public feud between legislators and Gov. Cuomo. Even though Cuomo originally announced that cannabis legalization would be a top priority for the first 100 days of this term, he has since lost the confidence of legalization advocates as the bill stalled, choosing to point fingers at his fellow Democrats rather than help them carry the bill across the finish line.

“I think if I kept the Senate [in session] for the next 10 years, they couldn’t pass marijuana,” Cuomo said recently, in another jab at his peers and fellow party members.

Some legislators now see Cuomo as an impediment to passing the bill.

What up with Cuomo? 'He doesn't want this to happen,' says state Sen. Liz Krueger.

“We have not had any three-way discussions since they fell apart during the budget. Though, they never really fell apart during the budget; he just stopped calling three ways,” said state Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), an original sponsor of the MRTA legislation, regarding negotiations between the Cuomo, the Senate and the Assembly.

When pressed for an explanation, Krueger responded: “He doesn’t want this to happen.”

Officials in Cuomo’s office, for their part, said that they are “engaging” with legislators’ staff.

Cuomo isn’t the only Democrat standing in the way of legalization. Jay Jacobs, the state Democratic party chairman (who was appointed by Cuomo), publicly cautioned Democrats to avoid supporting several “far progressive” measures, including legalization, last week. “It could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he said.

Shop highly rated dispensaries near you

Showing you dispensaries near
See all dispensaries

Advocates and Opponents Ramping Up

With the fate of legalization hanging on just two votes, activists on both sides of the issue are making eleventh-hour pushes, both in person and on billboards that have gone up throughout the state. Last week cannabis advocates as well as anti-legalization forces gathered at the State Capitol building in Albany for back-to-back press conferences. The anti-legalization organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) assembled a coalition of PTA members, cops and others  to make their case.

The event was organized in part by an anti-legalization group with ties to SAM, the New York State Substance Abuse Task Force. The group portrays itself as a state agency, but has no public presence beyond a Facebook group with 100 members (it claims to be a coalition of 90 different organizations). When contacted for more information regarding their presence and actual support, the group responded by simply offered to pass along their mission statement.

Both advocates and anti-legalization forces have put up billboards around the state. SAM spent $10,000 on four billboards that contain very deceptive statistics. For instance, one states “Since marijuana legalization, opioid-related deaths have risen 49% in [Colorado].” That’s technically true, but it’s also less than half the average national increase in opioid-related deaths.

Weedmaps, on the other hand, has put up over 60 billboards with “WeedFacts” on them around the state, including one very close to the Capitol Building.

Backup Bills at the Ready

Lawmakers have recently introduced a pair of backup bills in case the adult-use effort fails. An expanded medical bill, spearheaded by state Sen. Diane Savino and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, would eliminate qualifying conditions and legalize cannabis flower for all patients. A hemp regulation bill, introduced by Assemblymember Donna Lupardo, would regulate every step of the hemp supply chain. “Ultimately what we want is for New York to have the safest product line in the country, with the best labeling standards, the best testing standards, so that people know what they’re buying,” Lupardo said.

In the wake of Congress’ late-2018 passage of the farm bill, which removed federal restrictions on hemp (which is cannabis with less than 0.3% THC), the hemp industry has exploded in New York. Earlier this year, the Canadian cannabis giant Canopy Growth chose to open its new 300,000 square foot hemp farm and extraction center in upstate New York. The industry is expected to grow by 20% every year for the next decade.

Needless to say, a lot could change in the next few days as the legislative session comes to a close. Cuomo has floated the idea of extending the session, but only to address another unfinished matter of business, rent reform.

What happens next is anyone’s guess.

No matter how things shake out, however, we’re here to keep you posted. Check back with Leafly for updates on New York’s efforts to legalize cannabisthe good, the bad and the ugly.

Shop highly rated dispensaries near you

Showing you dispensaries near
See all dispensaries
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.
View Max Savage Levenson's articles
Get good reads, local deals, and strain spotlights delivered right to your inbox.

By providing us with your email address, you agree to Leafly's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.