New York Keeps Inching Closer To Marijuana Legalization

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New York’s health regulators are nearing completion of a much-anticipated study of recreational marijuana that could clear the way for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to support legalizing the drug.

The state Department of Health has signaled it will soon submit its findings to Cuomo, who has softened his anti-marijuana stance over the years as legalization has drawn more public support.

The expected release of the study — which is examining the impact recreational marijuana would have on New York — comes after the state Democratic Party threw its weight behind a bill to legalize the drug, passing a resolution at its convention Wednesday supporting the measure.

In a statement, Health Department spokeswoman Jill Montag said the agency has been “working to assess the health, economic and criminal justice impact of a regulated marijuana program in New York state and to explore the impact on New York of marijuana legalization in surrounding states.”

“The Department will submit its findings to the governor soon,” Montag said.

Cuomo’s position

Cuomo — who has long opposed recreational marijuana — first launched the marijuana study in January, citing moves by neighboring states like Massachusetts and Vermont to legalize the drug.

In April, the Health Department signaled the study would be a longer-term project, promising to “collect the relevant information” by the fall before preparing a report.

The timeline, however, has since been aggressively accelerated.

On May 14, Cuomo surprised reporters when he said the report would be completed “within days” — not the fall, as the Health Department previously said.

His comments came as he faced pressure from liberal-minded Democrats to back legalization, particularly from his primary challenger Cynthia Nixon, the Sex and the City star who is challenging him from the left.

Nixon called for marijuana legalization on April 11.

Legislative approval

Any effort to legalize marijuana, however, would need support from the state Legislature.

The Democratic Party’s resolution specifically backed the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, a bill that would legalize, tax and regulate the drug while vacating previous marijuana convictions that would no longer be a crime.

Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, who sponsors the bill, said she welcomed the party’s support.

The issue is one of racial justice, she said; People of color are convicted under the state’s marijuana laws at a much higher rate than white people.

“I actually think here in New York, the people are way ahead of the politicians in what they believe is the right answer for New York state,” Krueger said of marijuana legalization.

“It’s been the politicians — and I guess I’m one of them — who have been behind the public opinion and the public knowledge base as to why this is the right thing for the state and the nation.”

Her bill, however, would need support from the Senate’s Republican leadership if it were to be put to a vote this legislative session, which wraps up June 20.

There are currently 32 Democrats in the 63-seat Senate, enough for a bare majority. But one Democrat, Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, sits with the GOP, giving Republicans control of the chamber.

Scott Reif, spokesman for Senate Republicans, didn’t tip the conference’s hand, but said the GOP is rather focused on reducing taxes, aiding businesses and “keeping families and communities safe.”

“Let the governor and others focus on legalizing drugs,” Reif said. “Affordability, opportunity, security — those are our priorities for the remainder of the year.”

When, not if

Leaders in the Democrat-led Assembly, meanwhile, have said positive things about marijuana legalization in recent days.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, told reporters at the Democratic convention that New Yorkers’ views on marijuana have “evolved.”

But he said the debate shouldn’t be just about whether to legalize the drug, but also about the “affect the criminalization of marijuana has had on people” in the past.

“There’s a lot of issues that we have to address,” he said. “It’s not just whether we legalize it.”

On Friday, Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, D-Irondequoit, Monroe County, said he has two concerns about marijuana legalization: the long-term impacts, particularly among those with addictive traits; and how to determine whether someone has been driving under the influence of the drug.

But Morelle, who is running for Congress, said he believes legalization is a matter of when, not if.

“I don’t know if it’s the next six months, the next year, but I think it’s coming,” he said on WXXI’s Connections.