New York Is Closer Than Ever To Legalizing Weed

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Photo Credit: Trevor Hughes

New York is about to have a conversation about what legalizing weed might look like.

Better late than never.

In his annual budget address earlier this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo nodded to possible legalization in nearby states like New Jersey when he proposed the state Department of Health to dig into what readily available, legal pot might mean for New Yorkers.

“Marijuana—things are happening,” the not-exactly-electric Cuomo intoned on January 16, adding, “If it was legalized in Jersey and it was legal in Massachusetts and the federal government allowed it to go ahead, what would that do to New York because it’s right in the middle?”

The seemingly minor shift in rhetoric from a notoriously anti-weed governor—Cuomo referred to pot as a “Gateway Drug” less than a year ago—left reform advocates hopeful that New York was finally moving closer to recreational pot legalization. The exact parameters of the forthcoming study remained unclear, and Cuomo has yet to even conditionally embrace the prospect of legalizing marijuana. But it looked increasingly like the example set by neighboring jurisdictions—and the attendant windfall of tax revenue—would prove too tempting to ignore.

“We’re very intrigued and pleased to see the governor call for a study, especially as so many jurisdictions around New York are legalizing,” the Drug Policy Alliance deputy state director, Melissa Moore, told me in an interview. “That’s an important signal to us that he’s more open to this issue in the past. Hopefully, his thinking is evolving.”

Cuomo, who admitted pot use as a young man back when he was state attorney general, has a history of moving remarkably slowly on marijuana policy. He presided over the rollout of a notoriously strict (non-smokable) medical weed pilot program in 2014, one that was revised in 2016 so as to be at least a bit more responsive to the needs of patients. (Since then, it should be noted, he tried to reduce criminal penalties for carrying small amounts of pot, and signed a law allowing veterans to use medical pot products for PTSD this past November.)

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed an Obama-era directive encouraging federal prosecutors to leave pot-friendly states alone earlier this month, it threatened to throw a wrench in marijuana reform nationwide. But instead of reeling at the news, officials across the Northeast seem to be digging in their heels, laying down a new marker for what progressive policy looks like in the Trump era.

Massachusetts, still designing regulations for the legal sale and distribution of marijuana as demanded by a 2016 voter referendum, has shown few signs of backing off since Sessions’ announcement. And Vermont became the ninth state in the country—and the first by way of its legislature—to legalize recreational pot use, doing so after Sessions made his move. New Jersey’s newly sworn-in Democratic governor Phil Murphy, meanwhile, has made it clear for a while now that he wants to move quickly on legalizing and regulating marijuana sales.

All of this could leave New York—and the famously budget-obsessed Cuomo—to miss out on a massive revenue windfall. Colorado collected nearly $200 million in pot-related revenue in 2016 and has raked in over $500 million total since weed legalization went into effect there in 2014. New Jersey marijuana advocates and experts, meanwhile, have estimated the state could rake in $300 million in tax revenue once pot is legalized.

It also doesn’t hurt the cause that Cuomo, widely believed to be mulling a 2020 presidential campaign, lives in state a where weed legalization is more popular than ever. New Yorkers favored legalizing marijuana 62 to 28 in an Emerson College poll conducted in November 2017—up more than ten points from a May 2014 Quinnipiac poll. In fact, the speed with which New York’s neighboring states have been warming to recreational weed caught the Cuomo administration by surprise, one state lawmaker suggested to VICE.

When Cuomo was getting ready to sign the PTSD pot law in November, Diane Savino, the bill’s sponsor and a state senator from Staten Island, warned him he would “have a problem around marijuana,” she recalled in an interview.

“I said, ‘The new guy in New Jersey announced he was going to do adult-use marijuana in [the] first 100 days,'” she told me. “‘He’s going to give you agita every day. He’s going to announce these things. ‘We’re going to have legal marijuana to the left of us, to the right of us and to the north of us literally and figuratively. The pressure on New York to do something on legal marijuana is going to continue to grow.'”

In an emailed statement, Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi told VICE, “As the governor said, everyone has an opinion, but not the facts. As Massachusetts and Vermont recently legalized recreational marijuana as well as other states across the nation, the governor has directed DOH to undertake a study to understand the potential impacts on the criminal justice system, economy and public health.” So far, the governor’s office has declined to provide much in the way of details on its desired marijuana study, nor a timetable for when it will be finished. When reached for comment, a state Department of Health Department spokeswoman called questions about the timing of the commission “premature,” but did confirm it is slated to cover both potential legalization in New York as well as peripheral effects from legalization in neighboring states.

Savino, for her part, expected Cuomo to act on real pot reform sooner than later despite his past reticence, and possibly even pass a law early in his third term should he win reelection once again this coming November.

“On average, it takes about ten years from medical to adult use, but we’re in a different environment now, and the timeframe has accelerated exponentially,” Savino said. “We’re not going to be able to stop people from crossing state lines. We’re going to be creating felons from our own patients.”

Whenever Cuomo gets serious about recreational marijuana, lawmakers will be ready.

For the past several years, Manhattan state senator Liz Krueger has proposed a marijuana tax and regulation bill modeled on the state liquor law that treats marijuana companies like beverage distributors. In an interview, she offered what she described as a conservative estimate that legalization could produce $500 million in new revenue for the state government, $2 billion in new economic activity, and $300 million in savings for the state’s criminal justice system.

“This is a drug that is less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco and we can tax and regulate it similarly,” she told me. “There is tax revenue to be gained, there are advantages in decreasing criminal activity, and there are enormous savings in not moving thousands of young people of color through the criminal justice system.”

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