Written by Jeff Klingman
Entering 2019, the likely legalization of recreational cannabis in New York was one of the biggest stories in the cannabis industry. Sixty-five percent of the state’s population stands in support of the move, and with a committed governor and a newly elected, supposedly weed-friendly, progressive majority in the state legislature, the fourth biggest state in the Union, home to its biggest city, would soon be the beneficiary of a multi-million dollar cannabis market!
That was until the bill that would have given green the green light was pulled from the State Senate floor at the buzzer of the 2019 session for lack of support, never even coming up for its final vote. Thus, the effort to legalize pot in New York died, with a whimper. In the end, New York was lapped by Illinois who managed to get their own recreational weed bill across the finish line to become the 11th recreational market in the U.S.
So what happened? Here are a few key takeaways from the failure to end adult-use cannabis prohibition in New York.
Cuomo Didn’t Put His Full Weight Behind It
Governor Andrew Cuomo entered this year’s legislative session with the wind at his back. Newly re-elected and dealing with a friendly Democratic majority, New York’s governor had ambitions to deliver on many big priorities including recreational cannabis. His preferred method was to fold legalization into an overall state budget, to smuggle legal weed alongside a bunch of other non-controversial, necessary-to-fund budget measures. When that strategy failed, mainly due to disagreement over where the resulting tax money would go, the cause lost a lot of political leverage. It was a calamity Cuomo saw coming, yet failed to out maneuver. He also declined to twist any arms to whip Senate votes, despite the bill’s sponsor Manhattan Senator Liz Kruger’s requesting him to intervene.
That didn’t stop the Governor from being smug about it, though. “I'm not going to say 'I told you so,'” he said after the bill’s final failure. “But, I'm going to say everything but.”
Democratic Party Infighting
The fate of legalization was always going to be decided within New York’s Democratic majority, and the lingering conflicts among the caucus on cannabis didn’t evaporate when a standalone legalization bill was introduced. With taxes on an estimated $1.7 billion in annual sales in the balance, the end-use of those funds were no small sticking point. Cuomo’s game plan would have punted decisions to a newly-created state agency, with wide leeway to control the flow of tax monies. House Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a chief proponent of legalization, was among those who opposed this “figure it out later” strategy, preferring that the percentage of funds earmarked for communities traditionally hardest hit by War on Drugs policing be set in stone from the start.
Also, and as obvious as it may seem, we have to remember that New York State is not just New York City. Central and upstate New York contain many conservative pockets, including counties that are repped by centrist Democrats. Five out of six Democratic senators from Long Island suburbs opposed legalization, and the remaining L.I. member signaled support initially, but flipped when pushed. Sweeping new protections for renters, strengthened reproductive rights, and reduced carbon emissions enjoyed stronger support among the party, while cannabis got the back burner.
The Weed-Skeptic Lobby Still Wields Real Power
Professional groups with strong lobbying muscle also provided some serious, highly organized pushback too, mobbing on-the-fence Democrats with calls to vote down recreational pot. Upstate police organizations cited concerns over a possible increase in high drivers. Some anti-weed New York medical associations cited a lack of research on cannabis’ effect on juvenile brains while others, like President of the Medical Society of the State of New York, Dr. Thomas Madejski, suggested that adding more intoxicants to society was harmful on its face. Parent / Teacher Associations, currently fighting a losing battle to keep their high schoolers away from candy-scented Juul pods, decided that another vape-able substance was the last thing they needed to deal with. No matter how overwhelmingly popular recreational weed is among the general public, moneyed interests are still heard loud and clear in Albany.
Support Rallied Around the Consolation Prize
The disappointment surrounding the failure of full-blown legalization buries the news that the state did pass significant cannabis legislation, which will further decriminalize small amounts of cannabis in New York and will automatically expunge the criminal records of over 900,000 people arrested on misdemeanor drug charges over the last two decades. When support for the recreational weed measure stalled, this face-saving compromise was a place for law-makers to claim at least a half-measure for progress. “This is not the final step, but it will lay the groundwork for full decriminalization and legalization,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the fallback measure.
Critics suggest that the bill might not make a difference to parents who could be separated from their children for possessing more than two ounces of cannabis, or ex-cons who’d face stiff parole violations just for sparking a joint. And this kind of decriminalization does nothing to generate the high-paying jobs and tantalizing tax revenues an above-ground industry most surely would. It’ll take full-blown legalization to address those problems and super-charge the normalization of cannabis use in America’s cultural and financial center.
And that’ll take another year, at least.
Photo Adobe Stock