New York State Has a Shot at Legalizing Cannabis This Week, But Time Is Running Out
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New York State Has a Shot at Legalizing Cannabis This Week, But Time Is Running Out

With the legislative session ending June 19, lawmakers are rallying around social equity provisions in an adult-use cannabis bill.

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June 17, 2019

This post was updated June 19 to reflect new developments in the New York cannabis legalization legislation.

Ever since voters worked through a highly competitive gubernatorial primary in 2018, the odds of New York State legalizing adult-use cannabis in 2019 have zig-zagged between certainty and impossibility. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who found himself pushed into the cannabis legalization debate by his opponent, Cynthia Nixon, has urged lawmakers to get something passed—preferably as part of the state budget.

On that last point, the opportunity went out the window earlier this year when state legislators in Albany missed their shot at getting a cannabis legalization provision into the state budget. Now, the adult-use bill stands alone. Whether or not the votes are there to pass the bill before the end of New York’s legislative session (on June 19) is not clear. Cuomo isn’t too hopeful.

"The [state] Senate said they supported it and said they had the votes," the governor told Crain’s New York Business in May. "When they now say, 'We need the governor to come in to make this happen,' that's a different tune they are singing."

New York Democrats need to secure 32 votes in the Senate to pass the bill without any Republican support. (The Senate includes 63 seats, of which 39 are held by Democrats.) According to the Rochester Democrat-Chronicle, they may only have 30 votes in the bank. 

“I’ve been consistent from the very beginning: This is a hard lift,” Sen. Liz Krueger, of Manhattan, told the newspaper.

And in the House, 100 of 150 seats are held by Democrats, making that chamber an easier task for cannabis reform advocates.

By mid-week, legislators were talking up a new deal on cannabis legalization—one that could see the legislative session extended a few days to accommodate debate. The new bill, according to reporter Michael Gormley, "has more money for law enforcement, the loudest voice against legalization."

In most states, the legalization debate revolves at least in part around calls to decriminalize cannabis and move past the era of incarceration and prohibition. With states like Massachusetts and California shining a light on how to write social equity policies into state cannabis market regulations, New York legislators have homed in on particular language that would promote diversity in what could be one of the largest cannabis markets in the U.S.

Indeed, the conversation has been more heated in New York than in other recent legislative attempts elsewhere. 

Discussing New York legislators’ ongoing debate over social equity provisions, Bill Caruso, founding member of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform and a partner and leading cannabis attorney for Archer & Greiner, said that it’s often a litmus test for how a cannabis market will develop.

“The success of the industry is really built upon the success of how well it thrives in all communities, not just certain communities,” Caruso said. “Diversity as an economic advantage is important. But from a fairness standpoint, we have been locking up black and brown people at four times the rate that we’ve been doing so for their white counterparts, despite no difference in use … because of inherent racism. And if we’re going to start to cure some of those ills, we have to make sure we don’t continue to repeat the same process by now legalizing and shutting out those same people from the industry going forward.”

The Democrat-Chronicle zeroed in on this issue, pointing to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and House Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes as two lawmakers championing the decriminalization and social equity provisions in the current bill. Stewart-Cousins represents Yonkers, and Peoples-Stokes represents Buffalo.

Sen. Peter Harckham, however, a South Salem Democrat, points to youth education and law enforcement as two areas that need strengthen in this legislation. “This is something we have been telling our kids is illegal and bad for them, and now we’re making it legal,” he told the newspaper. “We need public service education money to let folks know about the impacts and effects of marijuana.”

How the debate over the nuances of cannabis reform takes shape in these final days remains to be seen. Cuomo has mostly stayed out of the scramble, while Krueger has urged him to step in and actively work on rounding up those last few votes—to throw around his political weight as governor.

But for those watching the clock and keeping an eye on how state lawmakers are handling cannabis legalization over the next few days, there will be a lot of politics to sift through. The end of New York’s legislative session also means fast-tracked debates over other state issues (like rent regulations and immigration policies), leaving even less time to get into the question of how and when to legalize cannabis.