When will New York lawmakers legalize? Governor Andrew Cuomo tried and failed through the budget both this year and last, so now, if it’s going to happen in 2020, it’s up to lawmakers to take up cannabis law reform.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with New York at the epicenter for much of the spring, lawmakers focused their attention toward coronavirus bills. Then, toward criminal justice reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
With both coronavirus and criminal justice conversations looming large, where does that leave cannabis legalization, as the legislative session nears its end?
Cannabis Wire talked to Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who represents voters in Buffalo, to better understand the forces and factors at play. Peoples-Stokes has been an influential legislative voice on legalization, working closely with Sen. Liz Krueger to try to strike a three-way budget negotiation with Cuomo last year.
(This conversation has been edited lightly for clarity.)
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: The world has changed a lot since we last spoke about legalization in New York. Where do legalization conversations stand? And as criminal and social justice conversations increase, are those reshaping the debate in New York?
New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes: I won’t say it’s necessarily reshaping it. But at a lot of the public hearings on the impacts on COVID on Black communities, legalization was brought up on several occasions by several members, that there is a disproportionate delivery of quality service, as well as access to jobs and economic development.
And with these low income communities, this is another reason why cannabis legislation should move forward, because it will create opportunity for investment dollars that is not there right now.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: Would you characterize the legalization conversations in New York as “active” among lawmakers, or “inactive?”
New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes: I would say that it’s active, because, again, you know, we do a lot of Zooming as well. As legislators, as Assembly members, a lot of meetings. In almost every conference that we’ve had since we’ve been out of session, post-COVID, more than one or two members will bring up this issue of passing cannabis. And not to mention that I’m in constant conversation with [Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie] about it.
And quite honestly, so are other members. So, this is an ongoing conversation. We have not stopped our pursuit for this. It’s just: when will it happen? I can’t tell you that.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: With New York at the COVID-19 epicenter for so long, and the subsequent economic fallout, is legalization being discussed as a source of revenue for the state? The so-called “pot for potholes” argument?
New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes: I have heard a few people mention that. But in my mind, if we pass cannabis legalization, but we can’t take care of budget issues for the state, then that just really puts Black people behind a burner again. And so I’m not going to go there with that.
I think there’s no question that the federal government should step up their game and support the state of New York and the deficits that we have now because of COVID. I’m not interested in suggesting that cannabis dollars can be used to replace that. Because if we do that, then it’s not going to be done in a way to help the people who have, literally for decades, been harmed by this failed drug policy.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in May, on the topic of budgets and legalization, “I support legalization of marijuana … I’ve worked very hard to pass it,” adding, on the prospects of passage, “I believe we will, but we didn’t get it done this last session because it’s a complicated issue and it has to be done in a comprehensive way.”
From your perspective, where does legalization stand today?
New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes: With all due respect to the Governor, who I really do appreciate, I’m going to disagree with his assessment on him hoping that legalization passes. Because for two consecutive years, he’s placed it in his budget, and conveniently, it didn’t make it through the budget, or the session. So I’m not so sure that that’s genuine. I think there’s a desire to stay engaged on the topic. But I’m not so sure that there’s a real commitment to move things forward.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: Plenty of people and companies lobbied Cuomo and other lawmakers and regulators on cannabis legalization, leading up to the spring push. Have you had any recent conversations with Cuomo on legalization? And if so, how would you describe them?
New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes: The Governor has done [more than 100] daily briefings on COVID, the topic that has devastated New York. Even though we’re on the top side of this now, there are still impacts that have to be dealt with, so I haven’t talked with him about legalization.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: Legalization efforts have been derailed throughout the country and world due to COVID, while other pushes have resumed. Is that the case in New York?
New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes: Well, I think COVID actually helps support the idea that there should be an investment in communities of color that have been disenfranchised. It literally supports that argument.
And the numbers of Black, brown, white, Asian, mixed people that you see on the street and George Floyd being murdered in broad daylight supports that argument as well. So I think even though we’re at this crisis moment, the things that are happening support our argument, for reinvesting in those communities, using cannabis dollars. That’s just real plain to me.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: So what, then, do you think it will take for lawmakers to pass a legalization bill, and get it to Cuomo’s desk?
New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes: Well, I hope it doesn’t take what we’ve seen happen in the streets of America and around the world as a result of the killing of George Floyd in broad daylight. I hope it doesn’t take that, but I do think it’s going to take a continuous engagement from the citizen base into communities where legislators don’t think that it’s something that we should do, and putting pressure on some of the Assembly and Senators, particularly in the Long Island area.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: I know that MRTA was picking up steam at the start of the year, with Sen. Pete Harckham telling Cannabis Wire that he backed the bill, as long as the “essential linchpin” is there, which is the funding for treatment and prevention. Has this bill gained any more support over the past couple of months?
New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes: I’m not aware of that.
It’ll be interesting to see because, at the end of the day, everything ends up being political. And if people think it’s something that we’ll get them unelected, they won’t do it. Or, if they think it is something that will get them elected, they will.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: Voters seem to be out ahead of elected officials on many topics, including cannabis legalization. Polling shows that the voters support it, but many elected officials just aren’t there.
New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes: That’s true. And I think that’s been pretty persistent across this debate.
The electorate has to stay engaged. I mean, they really, really do. Senator Krueger or myself and members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus, we’re not going to be able to carry this state legislature by ourselves if we don’t get support from the electorate in those communities where there is some pushback.