Cannabis Legalization in New York: State of the State

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY, and our resident New Yorker. Here he comments on the state of cannabis legalization in the Empire State.

Back in January of this year, legalization of adult-use cannabis seemed inevitable in my home state of New York. Last month, during a recent public talk at Utica College, which we celebrated the stoner-holiday of 4/20 (on 4/25), I commented on the possibility of next year’s talk occurring under a legal system.

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But maybe I spoke too soon. Yesterday, Governor Andrew Cuomo, the champion of equitable legalization in January, declared it all but dead. At least for this year.

Back in January, I wrote a cautiously optimistic post in response to the Governor’s budget plan announced during his 2019 State of the State Address in Albany. In the speech and in other public statements, Cuomo continuously prioritized legalization as an important element of his progressive “Justice Agenda” for 2019. The regulatory regime was to be included in the Governor’s budget proposal and not as a standalone bill (a common procedural move in New York), at the time all but assuring its passage in a newly Democratic Senate with a Democratic Assembly. Republicans by-and-large conceded passage too and focused instead on shaping the new regulatory regime after legalization was enacted.

Things have shifted considerably since. Questions regarding the details of the regulatory regime popped up consistently throughout February and March until the Governor, on March 20th, dropped legalization from the budget. Cuomo placed legalization’s fate in the hands of legislature, but maintained his confidence that legislation would be passed by the end this year’s legislative session in late June. For reference, of the ten states (plus DC) with legal adult-use marijuana, only Vermont was able to legalize without a popular referendum (though notably without extensive institutional regulatory requirements). New York would have become the first state to legalize sale of non-medical cannabis through legislation, rather than ballot initiative.

Since the start of April, Cuomo’s optimism has flagged and yesterday he appeared to have officially backed out of his enthusiasm for legislation in 2019. He has cited the lack of support among lawmakers in the Senate and Assembly for legalization’s inability to pass. However, legislators like Senator and Finance committee chair Liz Krueger believe that the Governor himself is responsible, arguing that, by withdrawing support for the bill and “walking away” from the budget push, Cuomo is the reason for the legislation’s failure. Krueger is the sponsor of the Senate version of the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act and was a strong advocate for legalizing through the budget.

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New York State Senator Liz Krueger

In my post in January, I drew attention to the vague language in Cuomo’s proposed budget measure on the issue of equity and how it posed significant obstacles to the fair and equitable rollout of an adult-use regulatory regime. But I never considered (due to the tremendous revenue potential of legalization) that it would influence passage of an adult-use regulatory regime.

I further suggested (in the midst of reading and reviewing Alex Berenson’s Tell Your Children for Points) that the biggest obstacles to the successful passage of adult-use were conservative lawmakers that were being influenced by pressure groups intent on resurrecting Reefer Madness. To be sure, the usual suspects in the anti-marijuana debate have amplified their voices on issues of public health, risk to youth, and traffic safety. Meanwhile several communities, including Nassau and Suffolk counties, among others, have promised to lead the charge for local opt-out provisions.

However, even while some conservatives, especially from upstate, have shifted against legalization due to these pressures, in a surprising turn it is the Democratic legislators who are standing in the way of quick passage of legalization legislation. Their main sticking point is precisely the lack of firm commitments on the equity provisions in Governor Cuomo’s budget proposal. The combined voices of several prominent black legislators, led by Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, are forcing the issue of equity to the center of the debate over legalization in the State.

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New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes

Peoples-Stokes, who represents a district in the Buffalo area, has maintained long-standing opposition to the Governor’s plan since January. She maintains that the prioritization and reinvestment in poor communities is “non-negotiable” as a provision of any legalization plan. She is calling for explicit language in the legislation that would dedicate a specific percentage of tax revenue to job training programs in communities hit hardest by excessive policing under the prohibition regime. She has introduced legislation that would allocate half of the tax revenue to job training programs in her district.

In my January post, I shared my skepticism on the practical commitment to the equity provisions in the legalization proposals during the regulation writing process. The issue of course, is the influence of Big Pot interests in influencing regulatory provisions and how industry priorities would conflict with equity proposals in licensure. Ten companies currently provide for the medical marijuana market in the state, and those companies are already working toward influencing regulatory provisions to get the best terms for their break into the recreational industry.

For his part, the Governor’s counsel Alphonso David has assured dubious legislators that equity provisions would be spelled out in regulations written once a law is passed. He also suggested that this “level of detail” was inappropriate for legislation, and much more appropriate to write into the regulations themselves after the law has been enacted. This seems like a dubious defense for not making a firmer commitment to equity in the legislation, which is, of course, the point of Peoples-Stokes’s complaint

These pro-legalization opponents want to ensure that licenses are available for individuals in poor urban communities, and that resources are allocated for helping new entrants access and acquire the capital needed for a successful adult-use cannabis business. They cite the startling racial disparities in the operation of marijuana businesses in the states that have legalized to this point, in addition to continuing law enforcement surveillance in communities of color, despite similar assurances from advocates on equity provisions in legal states.

As a pro-legalization advocate myself, I find this legislative consideration refreshing, and the leadership of women like Peoples-Stokes, Kreuger and others promising for the future of legalization. Despite the temporary setback in New York (and New Jersey, as it turns out), these legislators are continuing to highlight the ongoing critique of the logic of the War on Drugs. This is a new development in legalization, and a necessary one. Typically, the promise of a major new source of revenue would mute concerns over racial equity, but it seems that some legislative leaders are finally starting to confront the real harm caused by the War on Drugs.

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