Democrats say it’s time to stop passing on pot

Recreational marijuana may finally be legalized during the 2020 session.
Recreational marijuana may finally be legalized during the 2020 session.
a katz/Shutterstock
Recreational marijuana may finally be legalized during the 2020 session.

Democrats say it’s time to stop passing on pot

They’re determined to make a deal after their last effort went up in smoke.
December 17, 2019

As the state Legislature prepares for the second year of full Democratic control of state government, recreational marijuana legalization remains one of the big-ticket holdovers from the previous session. The legislation came close to passing but was held up by disagreements over diverting revenue to minority communities disproportionately affected by the enforcement of drug laws.

Most legalization supporters agree that tucking recreational marijuana legislation into the budget is the best way to get the bill passed. Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo included his own proposal in the executive budget, although Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie warned that the short window of budget negotiations would not allow enough time to iron out the complicated details of a regulatory framework.

After the issue was dropped from the budget, state Sen. Diane Savino, a prominent legalization backer, argued that the state had lost its only chance to pass the legislation this year. Cuomo said at the time that while he was hopeful, passage in the second half of the session would be more difficult – hardly the resounding expression of support that advocates and some lawmakers were hoping for. Ultimately, Savino and Cuomo were right: The session ended with new versions of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act from state Sen. Liz Krueger and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, but no votes were scheduled.

Krueger said the Legislature and the governor’s office were close enough to a deal by the end of the budget season that one could have been reached had the governor not dropped it. Cuomo said at the time that there wasn’t enough time to come to an agreement. The governor, who maintained that he remained supportive, put the onus on the Legislature to muster up the votes to pass it. The latest version of the bill reflected negotiations between the Cuomo administration and legislators, significantly closing the gap between the governor’s proposal and the one from Krueger and Peoples-Stokes. And Krueger said that discussions with other lawmakers, including those who were on the fence during the session, have continued in the second half of 2019 as she and Peoples-Stokes worked on a new version of their proposal to introduce next year. Whether that comes before the budget, or if they will work off of an executive proposal, remains to be seen.

Advocates, who have been active during the summer and fall, are preparing to hit the ground running in January. “We’ve never really stopped running,” Michael Sisitzky, lead policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union, told City & State. He said it was critical to keep the racial equity component of the legislation, which would aim to reinvest tax revenue from legal marijuana sales into communities most affected by marijuana criminalization as well as fund initiatives to help minorities start legal marijuana businesses. Sisitzky said that while the governor’s original plan had many good components, the social justice aspects did not go far enough, while the newer version of the Legislature’s bill did. Those details, according to Krueger, also represent the bulk of what is left to negotiate with the governor in 2020, including the exact nature of these racial justice programs and how much money will specifically be set aside for those purposes.

"(Cuomo) said, 'I think we can get it done in the budget this year, don't you?" - state Sen. Liz Krueger

Cuomo appears to be fully on board with the push to legalize recreational marijuana, despite concerns from some lawmakers, activists and lobbyists that his heart wasn’t really in it during the last go-round. Certainly, the governor is known for applying pressure on members of the Legislature standing in the way of his policy goals, something he declined to do to suburban Democrats who harbored reservations. The micromanaging Cuomo seemed fairly hands-off after his proposal dropped out of the budget. But in September, Cuomo said that he plans to introduce a new marijuana plan in his executive budget and would consult with legislative leaders and other states to formulate the best possible bill. A spokesperson for the governor said that he and his staff have since been talking to legislative leaders to hash out details before the start of the 2020 session.

In October, Cuomo held a summit with the governors of three other Northeast states to discuss and collaborate on regional marijuana and vaping policies. Krueger said such an initiative would make little sense if Cuomo did not intend to fully support legalization efforts in 2020. “I said, ‘Thank you very much for inviting me, I found it very educational,’” Krueger recounted to City & State. “He said, ‘I think we can get it done in the budget this year, don’t you?’”

Part of the problem in the previous session, once the budget was done and a new stand-alone bill had been introduced, was that the state Senate never secured enough votes to pass it despite Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins allowing it to be debated by the full caucus more than once. People involved in the negotiations have said that at one point, there were verbal agreements with enough lawmakers that it could have passed. But the fairweather legislators, largely from the suburbs, kept changing their demands regarding public safety and the allocation of revenue. Including a plan in the budget removes some of the complicating factors, while providing potential cover for lawmakers wary of voting for a stand-alone bill.

Melissa Moore, deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said that she and other marijuana legalization advocates have been speaking with lawmakers and constituents since the session ended, holding education sessions and attempting to assuage any lingering fears, particularly in the suburbs. Although there was strong opposition this year, most notably from the advocacy group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, polling shows that a majority of New Yorkers support recreational marijuana legalization. “I think we’re heading into this session in a good place,” Moore said.

Krueger said that she has spent time discussing marijuana with her colleagues, the governor’s staff, district attorneys and other stakeholders. “There hasn’t been a quiet time on marijuana,” she said. She added that she recently had a positive conversation with a suburban senator who had traveled to Massachusetts, which recently legalized the drug, to learn more after previously having reservations about legalization. Although she did not give a name, Hudson Valley state Sen. Pete Harckham could fit the bill as a Democrat who opposed legalization last session and took a trip to Massachusetts last month. After returning, Harckham said on “The Capitol Pressroom” that New York must address the issue in the next session.

Ultimately, while Krueger believes her bill could pass by itself, the budget is where she, the governor and advocates agree it has the best shot. Cuomo is expected to roll out a new proposal in January. “I would assume it will not be exactly the version that (Assemblywoman) Crystal (Peoples-Stokes) and I want,” Krueger said. “And then I assume we will be negotiating hard during the budget process to bring him closer on the issues he’s not yet close on.”

To see more Setting the Agenda pieces click here.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.