Cuomo and the mess he has left New York with about cannabis

New York Begins Clean Up of Cuomo’s Marijuana Mess, Kinda?

BINGHAMTON, NY – New York’s new governor, Kathy Hochul, has a lot of Cuomo cleanup to do, especially when it comes to her disgraced predecessor’s curious cannabis record. The Empire State is still months away from beginning recreational marijuana sales, but Hochul’s acting early to leave her imprint on the sector expected to reap billions of dollars in revenue for this economically powerful state. 

After the now-former-governor was accused of covering up 12,000 COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes and as nearly a dozen women accused him of sexual harassment, Cuomo turned heads in Albany when his need for a political win overtook his long-held opposition to progressive cannabis reform and he signed a measure legalizing recreational marijuana in his final months in office. State legislators praised the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (or MRTA) as a major victory, but just as his support allowed pot enthusiasts and patients alike to finally blow smoke legally, Cuomo was doing the same.

The state’s new beautiful bastion of progressive cannabis policy was centralized under newly created departments and boards – all of which were subject to whoever Cuomo nominated.  In his waning days, the only rumored names under consideration were the embattled governor’s corporate cannabis cronies. Grasping at every bit of political power he had left, Cuomo ultimately refused to make the nominations once it looked like his top picks would meet resistance in the legislature. 

It’s yet to be seen how Hochul stands on many policy areas, including progressive cannabis reform.

the author writes

A week after Cuomo was booted out of Albany (to go live at his sister’s house), Gov. Hochul began cleaning up many of his messes. Near the top of her list were nominations to fill in some of the top slots in the state’s newly created — and empowered — cannabis bureaucracy. At least for now, she’s showing a desire to take the Empire State in a different direction than her predecessor, including her pick of Chris Alexander – who used to work for advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance – to lead the Office of Cannabis Management. Alexander isn’t a stranger to drug policy in Albany and his nomination didn’t surprise many in the capital.

“He’s definitely a known quantity in Albany,” Troy Smit, Deputy Director of pro-marijuana group Empire State NORML, told The News Station.

The former drug lobbyist – who will soon be the state’s cannabis “czar” – later worked as a legislative counsel in the state Senate before leaving for a year and venturing into the private sector with Vill, LLC, a cannabis company.

Many in the marijuana lobby, especially the more progressive-leaning constituencies who’ve spent years lobbying for marijuana legalization legislation, are heralding Alexander’s nomination

“He is the right person to live out the vision of the MRTA and make sure we have the social and economic equity in the New York State cannabis industry,” Allan Gendelman, president of the New York Cannabis Growers and Processors, told The News Station.

While advocates and lawmakers appear unconcerned over any potential conflicts of interest, Alexander was required to sign a recusal statement upon his nomination for any dealings his new department may have with his former employers, Drug Policy Alliance and Vill, LLC (New York state government also isn’t exactly renowned for its commitment to ethics).

The new governor also nominated former Assemblymember Tremaine Wright to lead up the Cannabis Control Board – a five-member body largely charged with crafting new marijuana regulations and setting licensing fees for growers, processors, retailers and other operations. 

Unlike Alexander, Wright’s nomination raised eyebrows with some lawmakers. The former Assemblymember had receded into a post at the heavily Cuomo-aligned state Department of Financial services after giving up her assembly seat in a failed bid for the state Senate. While in office, Wright co-sponsored several pieces of pro-marijuana legislation, including the legalization measure which is now law. 

Still, advocates here in New York don’t know what to expect from her, though they don’t see any red flags being raised at the moment. 

“I’m not seeing any negatives,” Smit, with NORML, said. “She’s pretty much a wildcard.”

Other advocates agree she isn’t a problematic pick for the post, especially because she hasn’t shown any deep ties to Cuomo since she came to Albany – a scarlet letter in New York these days.

Both Alexander and Wright’s nominations were announced  mere hours ahead of time in last week’s special session. Within a few hours of hearing of their nominations, state senators were forced to vote on them. They were swiftly approved.  

Despite the rapid pace at which Alexander and Wright were shoved through the legislature, a number of posts in New York’s newborn cannabis bureaucracy remain unfilled. That hampers the program before it’s a fully fledged government entity. 

“I don’t know how they get this program up and running without those nominations,” Smit said.

These unoccupied posts include the other four members of Wright’s Cannabis Control Board and the entire seven-person Cannabis Advisory Board, a separate new panel entirely.

Proponents of the new legalization law touted its commitment to ensuring people and communities disproportionately impacted during the ‘war on drugs’ would especially see the benefits of legalization. The Cannabis Advisory Board is one of the key players in carrying out those justice provisions. It’s a panel meant to be packed with experts in justice, agriculture and health meant to oversee the new cannabis bureaucracy, especially when it comes to their commitment to social and economic justice.

Read The News Station’s comprehensive rundown of what’s in New York’s marijuana legalization measure: Complete Guide to the Empire State’s New Marijuana Bill

A major part of this was in the bill’s provisions for reserving licenses and extending lines of credit to marginalized populations.These groups, all falling under the umbrella of “social and economic equity applicants,” are to be specifically defined by the Cannabis Advisory Board. That board will then recommend exactly how many licenses should be reserved under the social and economic equity umbrella. 

Problem is, there still isn’t a Cannabis Advisory Board at this point and the legislature doesn’t reconvene until January, barring another special session. That logically means Alexander’s Office of Cannabis Management and Wright’s Cannabis Control Board can only go so far before they statutorily need the other positions filled.

“Having those two positions filled lets them get regulations in place, at least most of them, but they still have the social equity component that can’t be accomplished without this CAB,” Smit said.

When the MRTA passed in April, the timeline for beginning recreational sales was in the ballpark of mid-2022. But with six months of delay (due to Cuomo’s refusal to make the nominations) the start date could be pushed back towards the end of the year –or even into 2023.

Many advocates fear those delays are fueling many of the ills progressive marijuana reformers tried to prevent in the legalization law just passed, chief among them corporate cannabis crowding out entrepreneurs.

“The longer the program takes to get setup, the less jobs there will be created and the less that the social equity applicants are going to be able to get into the business because we’re looking at some serious competition from out of state,” Gendleman, the state’s Cannabis Growers and Processors Association president, said.

Investors, keen to tap into what could be upwards of a $3.5 billion cannabis market  are already raising capital, buying property and readying other resources as they prepare to swoop into New York. The struggling farmers and budding bud entrepreneurs looking for a shot in the industry who don’t have those same connections will have resources provided by the state through the MRTA, but they have to be set up first.

“Every extra time they have to find more funding gives them a leg up over the person that’s going to be looking for those small business loans, those grants from the Office of Cannabis Management and other sources of non-conventional business funding,” Smit said.

For now, New York remains in a purgatory of pot policy. You can smoke marijuana anywhere smoking is allowed and cops can’t–at least on paper–use the smell of marijuana as a probable cause for a search, but it’s still illegal to sell or grow weed in the Empire State. 

“She’s pretty much a wildcard.”

Troy Smit

At a time where most New York policy wonks are looking for a fresh start with the state’s newly minted governor, Kathy Hochul. 

On her first day in office, she pledged a clean start, one with ethics reform and transparency – the same promises Cuomo made. While Hochul may be able to distance herself from Cuomo’s name, she may find it more difficult to manage policy in Albany given her branding as a moderate Democrat. Progressives have built clout in the state legislature in the last few years, and those same lawmakers were some of the first to brandish knives against Cuomo. Marijuana legalization and the criminal justice reforms that accompanied it are one of their most prominent accomplishments. Hochul, who announced she would run for governor in 2022, can’t afford to make enemies.

It’s yet to be seen how Hochul stands on many policy areas, including progressive cannabis reform. While her initial nominations are providing some hints as to the direction she ultimately goes in, there’s lingering fear amongst advocates that, much like her predecessor, she may just be blowing smoke.

Vaughn’s a journalist based in New York’s north country. His journalistic escapades include freelancing for the New York Post, the Albany Times Union, Democracy Now, the Ithaca Voice, and several public radio stations across the country. His full bio is here.

Vaughn’s a journalist based in New York’s north country. His journalistic escapades include freelancing for the New York Post, the Albany Times Union, Democracy Now, the Ithaca Voice, and several public radio stations across the country. His full bio is here.

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