New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, welcomed the USNS Comfort, a naval hospital ship with a 1,000 bed-capacity, to Pier 90 on Monday, March 30. Cuomo’s schedule has been overtaken by COVID-19 work, leaving little room to negotiate the details of marijuana legalization. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
For the second year in a row, New York legislators have dropped adult-use marijuana legalization from the state’s annual budget.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo confirmed early Wednesday that cannabis legalization will not be included. “I don’t believe we get there,” he said in a WAMC radio interview, as lawmakers scrambled to meet the state’s April 1 budget deadline.
Killed by COVID-19
The circumstances are, of course, drastically different this year: New York currently has the highest rate of coronavirus infections in the country by ten-fold, and the legislature has focused its resources on ensuring the safety of its residents and the stability of the state’s economy.
The failure to include adult-use legalization—and cut $34 million from the Office of Cannabis Management as well—is naturally a setback, but lawmakers’ hesitation to rush the bill suggests that the version of the bill that will eventually pass will be more thought-out and effective.
Asked on Tuesday about the chances of including legalization in the budget, Cuomo was not optimistic: “Not likely,” he said. “Too much, too little time.”
Cuomo said many details need to be worked out before legalization could be considered, and that hasn’t happened in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A year of encouraging signs
At least until the pandemic hit, there were encouraging indicators that New York could pass legalization this year.
For starters, a growing percentage of New Yorkers support the idea. A Quinnipiac poll released in late January showed that two-thirds of voters statewide were in favor, an all-time high.
Furthermore, the state sorely needs the additional revenue that cannabis would generate. Even pre-pandemic, the state’s budget gap was $6 billion, the largest in nearly a decade. As Leafly reported last month, Cuomo projected that legal cannabis could generate $20 million in the next fiscal year, $63 million the following year and $188 million by FY 2025.
Preparations were in place
Cuomo sent more encouraging signals when he hired Norman Birenbaum—the former cannabis czar of Rhode Island—last December to oversee the legalization in New York; last fall Cuomo also led a summit with neighboring states to coordinate cannabis policy, and planned to tour legal states in advance of finalizing the budget.
Lastly, the Northeast changed drastically this year, and New York is hemorrhaging revenue to its neighbors. In 2019, Massachusetts’ adult-use market ramped up and pulled in $420 million (we kid you not); at some stores, half of the customers were coming from New York. New Jersey is leaving legalization up to the voters in November; it is projected to pass.
Equity remains at the center of debate
New York has a long and alarming history of racially-motivated policing, and throughout the process of legalization, advocates and lawmakers alike have championed support for communities of color that have been disproportionately arrested and harassed for cannabis possession. Just like last year, however, lawmakers were at odds about how to allocate social equity funds gained through a legal cannabis market.
“One of the biggest points of contention is how the equity fund would be distributed, and the vagueness included in the CRTA [Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act] produced skepticism among legislative leaders that will continue through the legislative session,” Ryan Lepore, the Deputy Director of NYC NORML, told Leafly.
The CRTA bill supported by Cuomo and Birenbaum leaves control of the funds in the hands of the Office of Cannabis Management, which in turn offers a rough outline of social equity measures, like low to 0% interest business loans, incubator loans, and reduced or deferred application fees for individuals from communities affected by the war on drugs.
Progressive lawmakers including State Sen. Liz Krueger (D, Manhattan) and Assembly Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes (D) advocated more direct use of the funds, through their competing bill, the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA); that bill was re-submitted on March 12.
Mixed messages until the 11th hour
Since his efforts to defeat the coronavirus began in full force earlier this month, the governor has sent confusing signals about the feasibility of still passing legalization.
“There are many policy initiatives that I laid out back in January, and we’re going to pursue all of them,” Cuomo said on March 23, before adding an awkward and ambiguous exception.
“The only caveat was if you have a really complex issue that normally would require weeks of nuanced, detailed negotiation to do it right, that we won’t do,” he said. “If it’s a highly complex issue, I get it and then let’s put it off because we don’t want to do something sloppy.”
Yet other lawmakers have suggested that Cuomo had given up on cannabis much sooner.
A spokesperson for Sen. Krueger, for instance, told Marijuana Moment on March 30 that “the Senator has said previously that the Governor’s staff essentially took marijuana off the table weeks ago” in budget negotiations.
Value in not rushing the bill
Despite failing to pass legalization, some advocates are relieved that the bill wasn’t rushed through the legislature.
“It is exceedingly important for New York to do legalization right—our regulation framework must center people who have been impacted by the drug war, create equity and diversity, and support small businesses and farmers,” said Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance in a recent press release. “It is crucial for New York’s legalization effort to focus economic justice and reinvesting in communities, especially given the current landscape.”
Some lawmakers have made a similar concession; in the interview cited above, Sen. Krueger’s office argued that “If it can’t get done the right way in the budget right in the middle of overlapping public health and fiscal crises, that there is no reason it can’t get done right later.”
Stand-alone bill not likely
It’s unlikely but technically still possible that New York will legalize via a stand-alone bill before the legislative session ends on June 2. If not, New Yorkers will need to wait another year for the reforms, and the economic opportunities, that the state needs now more than ever.
“The good thing is both areas of government (executive & legislative) seemingly agree upon the benefits of legalization,” said Lepore, of NYC NORML. “Now it’s just a difference in opinion and strategy on how to accomplish these shared goals.”