Why recreational marijuana legalization won’t be in the state budget

The coronavirus crisis has a lot to do with it.

Governor Cuomo on Wednesday, April 1st.

Governor Cuomo on Wednesday, April 1st. Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo squashed New Yorkers’ high hopes for recreational marijuana legalization.

Despite agreeing to prioritize legal pot as recently as last week, the governor said that it probably won’t make it into this year’s state’s budget. “It’s not likely,” Cuomo said. “Too much, too little time.”

The budget was due by the end of the day on Tuesday. But to be fair, Cuomo and the state Legislature have been consumed with fighting the worst coronavirus outbreak in the country for the past month. 

New York’s COVID-19 crisis has shifted the Legislature’s priorities, as the state faces an estimated $10 billion to $15 billion budget gap, in part due to the virus. The outbreak has also had a significant impact on budget negotiations, as most legislators were unable to operate as they normally would.

“I don’t believe we’ll get there (on legalizing pot) because in truth that is something that had to be talked through and worked through, and the Legislature wasn’t here,” Cuomo told WAMC radio host Alan Chartock on Tuesday. “I was doing this COVID virus.”

However, many have been left wondering why recreational marijuana legalization couldn’t be squeezed into the budget this year. So we’ve decided to answer some of the most asked questions about why fitting marijuana into the state budget just wasn’t doable.

So why isn’t pot in the budget? I thought Cuomo said it was still a priority despite the pandemic.

It’s true that the governor said that he would not pass a bare-bones budget even with COVID-19 ravaging the state, committing to including big-ticket items like marijuana legalization. But even before the global pandemic struck, pot was always going to be tough because Cuomo and the state Legislature don’t agree about what to do with the tax revenues from legalized sales. As recently as the middle of March, they still hadn’t appeared to come to an agreement. Members of the Legislature want a large amount of tax revenues set aside to reinvest in largely minority communities that were disproportionately targeted for marijuana offenses, while the governor wants to remain flexible by avoiding specific earmarks. The same issue got in the way of legalization passing last year.

Why didn’t they keep trying to negotiate?

The short answer is because the state is facing a global pandemic. As much as many would have liked to hash out the final details to legalize pot in the state budget this year, other issues took priority. Such a massive overhaul to state law is no small feat and requires detailed attention, which is understandably focused elsewhere as hospitals struggle to treat patients and lawmakers can’t get within 6 feet of each other. “While legalizing cannabis is necessary to reduce the decades of unjust, racist targeting of communities of color in New York, our state faces a public health crisis right now and efforts to contain COVID-19 demand legislators’ full attention,” Kassandra Frederique, managing director of policy, advocacy and campaigns at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. Her group has been one of the leading organizations lobbying for recreational pot legalization.

But wouldn’t a new revenue source like pot help the state economy during these trying times?

Some have made that argument, but even in the best of times, the revenues from marijuana sales would be a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the billions in lost revenues that the state is projecting. Once ramped up, the state estimates early revenues would be about $300 million per year. The key phrase is “ramped up.” In the best circumstances, it would take a couple years for stores to open up and for the state to really begin to benefit from the new taxes. In his executive budget, Cuomo only budgeted for about $20 million in revenues for the coming year, which is a negligible amount for any sort of short-term economic recovery efforts. There’s also the fact that those projections were based on a much stronger economy – people may be less willing to spend money on pot now, and an economic downturn would make it more difficult for new businesses to get off the ground. Money is money in the end, but it doesn’t seem like it would be worth pushing through a major rewrite of drug laws and implement a new regulatory structure that isn’t quite ready.

Is there another way recreational marijuana use could be legalized?

Yes. There is nothing tying legalization to the budget, so it could still get passed at any other point during the state legislative session. Cuomo has repeatedly said that it can’t get done outside of the budget because it’s too controversial, and in 2019, he was right. However, the sponsors of the pot legalization bill remain hopeful that the state will still get it done soon “There is no reason we cannot negotiate and pass a nation-leading legalization model when the crisis is over,” state Sen. Liz Krueger told City & State in March.

What about a ballot referendum? Wouldn’t that be easier?

California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Colorado, Michigan, Massachusetts and Maine all legalized recreational marijuana through ballot referendums.

In other states, a ballot referendum can be introduced by a lawmaker or by activists who gain enough petition signatures to get the referendum on the ballot. In 2019, Cuomo posited that New York could legalize recreational marijuana with a referendum. However, New York doesn’t have the infrastructure or political tradition for ballot initiatives, so it’s unlikely that this would happen.