New York State

Marijuana’s stumbling blocks

Why, when marijuana is supported by most New Yorkers and large majorities of constituents and Democrats have unified control of the state government, can’t they pass pass marijuana legalization? It comes down to where that support is located.

What's the status of New York's efforts to legalize recreational marijuana?

What's the status of New York's efforts to legalize recreational marijuana? Yarygin/Shutterstock

Ever since actress Cynthia Nixon made legalizing marijuana a hallmark of her unsuccessful primary challenge to Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2018, progressives have been pushing the issue and the governor has embraced it.

Yet as the state legislative session winds down, it now looks unlikely to pass. Despite polling showing support from a majority of New Yorkers, tentative suburban lawmakers remain uncommitted. Why, when Democrats have unified control, can’t they pass something supported by most of their constituents?

First, the majority who favor legalizing recreational marijuana is not necessarily overwhelming. One poll from Quinnipiac University in January recorded 65% of New Yorkers in favor of legalizing marijuana, the highest among public polling numbers, and in May Quinnipiac polled support at 63%. Yet Quinnipiac is the only pollster to show support surpassing 60%. Siena College found support at just 52% and 53% across three different polls, while an NBC 4 NY/Marist poll had 55% approval.

Even with consisten majority support, the state Legislature isn’t composed of at-large, statewide elected officials. If support is too concentrated in urban districts, such a measure can still struggle to gain a legislative majority. Long Island, one of the key areas that remains a sticking point, consistently polls worse for pot legalization, In the most recent Siena College poll, opposition outweighed support on Long Island.

Siena College pollster Steve Greenberg said the numbers show that the matter of marijuana legalization doesn’t split evenly along ideological lines, in part because of all the complexities of how pot will, or won’t, be regulated. Many moderate Democrats, for example, might favor dropping criminal penalties for possession, but still want selling the drug or driving under the influence of it to be illegal. “I think it’s the nature of the issue – it is the sale of it, the possession of it, the use of it,” Greenberg said. “We have a test for DWI, now we don’t have a test for DW-stoned, so some people are thinking about that as part of it.”

Already, certain suburban areas have either opted out or plan to opt out of recreational sales, under a provision in Cuomo’s proposal from budget season. The town of North Hempstead has passed legislation prohibiting sales, while leaders in both Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island have said they would not allow sales either.

Larry Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said that for Long Island lawmakers, perhaps the best outcome for them is to not have a vote at all this year in order to avoid taking a side, since there is no clear benefit one way or another and there are credible arguments on both sides. “If there’s no consensus, and when you’re a freshman legislator who replaced a Republican and there’s not a clamor across your community for what would be – from the perspective of not even a generation ago – an enormous change, it’s understandable,” Levy said of the hesitance among suburban Democratic lawmakers.

Complicating the matter further is that New York would only be the second state to legalize marijuana through legislation, and the first to set up a regulatory framework legislatively. Every other state – other than Vermont, which legalized possession and allowed only for limited home growing – legalized the drug through a voter referendum. A recent analysis from the Rockefeller Institute concluded that one of several reasons passing a marijuana bill has been more difficult is because it forces individual lawmakers to take a stand on the issue, which may be politically risky.

While it is unlikely that marijuana legalization alone would cost anyone an election, both the complicated nature of the legislation and the variable unknowns that have led to a lack of consensus means there is no clear political path forward - especially for new state senators who walk a fine line between a Democratic base and moderate swing voters.

Hoping to assuage some of the concerns from wavering lawmakers, the sponsors of the bill to legalize recreational marijuana, state Sen. Liz Krueger and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, introduced last week an amended version of the bill that included a far broader regulatory system than was originally imposed, as well as a mechanism for municipalities to opt out of sales through a voter referendum. The previous version had very few regulatory rules, while the revised bill sets up an Office of Cannabis Management, much like the one originally proposed by Cuomo, to oversee licensing and overall enforcement.

Before those changes were made, Krueger had said that she did not have the votes for passage and would need Cuomo’s help to get those on the fence. It remains to be seen whether the new language changes enough in a complicated equation for new state senators in moderate districts to go on the record with a vote to legalize recreational marijuana.