BINGHAMTON, NY – With Albany politics in disarray as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature tangle over how to handle the Democrat’s multitude of scandals, now seems like an inopportune time to take up marijuana legalization – but this is New York, and the effort is picking up steam.
Cuomo has said he and legislative leaders remain in talks on cannabis reform, including legalizing recreational marijuana for adults, even as the governor spent most of his time on a call with reporters last week denying every claim of sexual harassment levied against him.
The confirmation was a departure from the governor’s long-held stance that marijuana legalization be part of the state’s budget. That’s the procedural tool a governor — at least one who isn’t a political dead-man-walking — traditionally uses to exercise a heavy degree of influence on the legislature. Now the three-term governor and key members of the legislature, even those calling for his resignation, seem serious about making a cannabis deal.
That was on display Sunday, when both chambers of the legislature released their proposals for the state’s budget. In previous years Cuomo included marijuana legalization in his budget proposal, and the legislature would typically respond by including its cannabis plan in their budget proposals. This year their legislation, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, was dropped from their budget proposals because negotiations had already started to pass it separately.
“It is a matter of when, not if. We are extremely close,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins, a Democrat, told reporters in a press conference over Zoom Tuesday. During that call, she said negotiations were currently at “a little bit of an impasse” over a provision on impaired driving, though she seemed optimistic it could be resolved “sooner rather than later.”
A day before, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, also a Democrat, said he expects it to be hammered out prior to the budget, which must be approved before April 1 to avoid a state government shutdown. That effectively would mean it needs to come for a vote sometime next week.
Marijuana advocates have long criticized Cuomo’s legalization proposal, the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act, for a multitude of reasons. Among them, what critics call its overpriced taxation structure, complete absence of legislative oversight and relative lack of reinvestment of tax proceeds to communities of color hit hardest by the ‘war on drugs.’
Deputy Director of Empire State NORML Troy Smit told The News Station he understands the need for compromise but worries how far Cuomo and the leaders of the House and Senate may pull the final legislation away from the legislature’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act.
“My biggest concern is that at the end of the day, the three-way negotiations that go on significantly changes the bill to a point where it’s unrecognizable to advocates and become something that we’re not going to participate in,” Smit said.
“Then it just becomes a program for rich white guys in New York City to get high legally”Troy Smit
With the legislation being considered outside the budget, it’s much easier for legislative leaders to walk away from the table because it’s not also tied to funding the state government. Melissa Moore, New York state director of the pro-cannabis Drug Policy Alliance, pointed out the legislators carrying the bill are no back benchers and are the same ones who have done so the last two years.
“I think the bill sponsors, Majority Leader People-Sokes and Senator Krueger– this is not their first run at this and they’ve been really clear about what their right lines are in terms of making sure that we’re moving forward legalization with justice at the core,” Moore told The News Station.
With Cuomo desperate for a win to distract from what seems like a continuous downward spiral, he might just step out of the way this year and let marijuana legalization pass without the usual political wrangling that’s derailed the effort for the past two years.