New York May Put Legal Cannabis on the Back Burner

The New York legislature appears to be choking on legal marijuana. Even though both the State Senate and Assembly support it, and Governor Andrew Cuomo called legalization a top priority in December, Cuomo declared dope was defeated last week because the recreational marijuana measures could not be completed to include in the state budget in time for its April 1 deadline.

"It was clear early on that the legislative leaders signaled that it was going to be done outside the budget," Cuomo told reporters last Tuesday. "Speaker [of the New York State Assembly Carl Heastie] was quite clear of that, that he thought it was better to do it outside the budget and that it was complicated and that it would take time. But after the budget I'm hopeful in the legislative session it passes post-budget, before June." "When it's not done in the budget, then it is, in my opinion, harder to do as a standalone bill because it’s now just marijuana with a capital M," Cuomo added.

What Cuomo describes as a “capital M” is technically the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act (CRTA), which could simply be slipped into the 2019-20 state budget and immediately legalize recreational cannabis for anyone over 21. Despite what Cuomo says, the possibility of legal pot is still on the table.

“I believe that it will survive in the budget and it will not get deleted,” said David Holland, executive and legal director of the state-level advocacy group Empire State NORML. “I think it will be voted on and I think it will pass. “I have not seen a physical copy of the budget bill that shows the provision is out. Until I see it physically removed from the next print of the bill that goes to the vote, I think it can still be snuck in.” Pot is certainly popular among New Yorkers. A January Quinnipiac poll showed state voters approve legal marijuana sales by about a 60-40 margin. Recreational cannabis does have its opponents: police groups are dead set against legalization, the state Parent Teacher Association worries that kids will start smoking weed, and at least half a dozen counties say they won’t allow cannabis sales.

“You have law enforcement, you have teachers, people that society generally gives great deference to,” Holland told The North Star. “Except some of the arguments that are being advanced have either been disproven, or are really not viable in light of other studies. The public health and safety concerns are far less than they are for alcohol, or tobacco, or the opioid crisis. We’ve been raised on generations of ill-informed propaganda that was designed to really demonize and discriminate against certain segments of society.”

But cops, teachers, and angry conservatives are not the ones holding up recreational cannabis in New York. It’s the lawmakers who favor legalization that aren’t ready to vote on the measure as written because they don’t think it does enough for communities of color and Drug War victims.

“People who have been caught up in the criminal justice system have been denied housing and denied job opportunities,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told WXXI. “Mechanisms that reverse that have to be dealt with first.”

The racial disparities in marijuana arrests are even more pronounced in New York than elsewhere in the US. A December report from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer found that Black and Latinx people were arrested for cannabis eight times more often than white people.

Buffalo Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who has repeatedly sponsored legalization bills, thinks this measure doesn’t go far enough to support low-income populations and communities of color. “You can’t solve the problem of destigmatizing the [cannabis] plant without solving the problem of destigmatizing the people who have been subject to, I think, criminal acts by the war on drugs,” she told the Buffalo News.

Even CRTA’s biggest supporters, like NORML, think the measure needs more job training, forgiveness of past crimes, and protections for smaller and minority-owned businesses. “Written into that is what’s supposed to be a social justice program that addresses issues of community investment, trying to create opportunity,” Holland told The North Star. “But its not spelled out with the degree of specificity that a lot of people would like.”

He rattled off a slew of examples where the legislation falls short. “We’d like to see expungement of records instead of just sealing them,” he said, referring to past marijuana arrests. “People’s convictions should be negated rather than just hidden from public view.”

“We’d like to see home grow,” he added. “New York state does not allow for some degree of self-cultivation. We think that’s a critical factor, particularly for medical patients that can’t afford the stepped-up taxes.”

The outlawing of home-grown plants is unusual for legal marijuana states, and cannabis advocates smell something funny. Marijuana Moment obtained secret documents from the powerful lobby the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association (NYMCIA), showing they had twisted Cuomo’s arm to make home growing illegal. This helps entrenched, big-bucks industry corporations by ensuring people cannot grow their own weed. John Boehner’s company Acreage Holdings and mega-dispensary chain MedMen were both NYCMIA member groups, though MedMen has since been expelled over racism and corruption allegations.

“We can’t be the first to jail and the last ones to the bank,” Harlem pastor Reverend Reginald Bachus told the Christian Science Monitor. “There is a great sense of distrust based on the historical precedent, the classical bait-and-switch where minority communities are used as political fodder to get an agenda passed, and then afterward there’s a great sense of amnesia about the promises and commitments made.”

The recreational marijuana measure is a substantial part of the New York state budget, comprising nearly 200 pages of a 398-page bill. Supporters worry that taking it out of the budget, and proposing cannabis as a standalone bill, could delay legal marijuana by years, if not longer. “If this were standing solo, it might get buried forever in committee action and never get voted on,” Holland said.

So while it’s possible that recreational marijuana could be legalized in New York by the end of the week, it’s also possible that it won’t be legalized for years. People, you might want to hold on to your New York Medical Marijuana card.

About the Author

Joe Kukura is a San Francisco freelance writer covering the intersection of cannabis policy and social justice for The North Star and SF Weekly. His work has previously appeared in Thrillist and the Daily Dot, and you can follow him on Twitter @ExercisingDrunk.