As the controversies mount for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, so, too, do the efforts to ramp up support for the cannabis legalization bill that is competing with his plan to legalize by budget.
For the second time this month, cannabis reform advocates held a lobby day to push for the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (S.854/A.1248), introduced by Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes. Both lawmakers, along with several others, spoke during Monday’s event, the Women in Cannabis Lobby Day, as did representatives from local and national advocacy groups and cannabis companies. The event fell on International Women’s Day.
Unsurprisingly, Cuomo came up during the event, and not just in the context of his budget plan. Shortly after Cuomo faced renewed scrutiny over his handling of nursing homes amid COVID-19, five women have now accused Cuomo of sexual harassment. Dozens of lawmakers have called for either impeachment or resignation, including Krueger and Peoples-Stokes, who want Cuomo to resign.
“I want to say there’s a lot of distractions in Albany right now, but we’re staying focused,” said Melissa Moore, the New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
“If New York is having a conversation about listening to women,” Moore continued, “New York needs to pass marijuana justice now with the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act because legalization is a gender justice issue. Women have had their children torn from their arms because of just an allegation of marijuana use.”
The deadline to legalize cannabis by budget is April 1, and the deadline to pass MRTA is in June. Legalization efforts in New York failed in 2020 and in 2019, both by budget and by bill, in large part due to the inability of lawmakers and Cuomo to agree by deadlines on a handful of issues like allocation of cannabis tax revenue and equity measures. This year, Cuomo revised his budget proposal in response to early criticisms following its introduction in January, but as Cannabis Wire recently reported, advocates and lawmakers have said it’s not enough.
Despite these early disagreements and distractions, Krueger said during Monday’s event that she’s “very optimistic” that “this is the year we might actually get this done in New York.”
“It’s critical that we get it done right. You only get one chance at it. So, the focus that Crystal and I have continued to bring to our effort,” Krueger continued, “is to make sure that legalizing marijuana for recreational adult use, for expanded medical purposes, and for opening up more of the CBD hemp market is all done thoughtfully and with a real focus on ending criminalization of these drugs, cleaning the records of people who got caught up in the drug war, making sure there are investments in communities of color who disproportionately were harmed by the drug war for the last 70, 80 years, and to make sure that we are not simply becoming a state that makes the mistake of allowing big pharma or big alcohol to simply come in and take control of cannabis products.”
The bill put forth by Krueger and Peoples-Stokes would also direct cannabis tax revenue toward drug use education and treatment. On Monday, Krueger emphasized the need for a regulated market to keep cannabis out of the hands of those younger than 21, while understanding “that most people start experimenting with cannabis before they’re 21.” One early issue with Cuomo’s budget proposal that advocates highlighted was that it would have increased the penalty for selling cannabis to a person under 21 from a misdemeanor to a felony, but that was changed in his revision last month.
“I last used cannabis in 1976, Rocky Horror Picture Show in Chicago, but I was certainly using it way before 21,” Krueger said.
Peoples-Stokes spoke immediately after Krueger, and focused on the “need to start pounding a little harder, not just on the governor, but on people across the state” when it comes to building support for the bill.
“The polls already tell us that if we had this opportunity as a referendum, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now because the people would have voted it up,” she continued, pointing out that New Yorkers don’t have the power to bring forth an initiative, as is the case in many other states.
In addition to issues with the penalties in Cuomo’s proposal, its exclusion of home cultivation, and its thinner equity provisions, a recurring critique has focused on Cuomo’s framing of legalization as a revenue driver. During Monday’s event, Assembly member Richard Gottfried reiterated that legalization should focus on justice, not dollars.
“I don’t like it when people say, ‘oh, this will help generate revenue to balance the budget,’” he said. “It’s probably not going to produce revenue for a couple of years. And there will be a couple of zeros missing from there being enough money to balance any budget. The reason for doing this is to get the criminal justice system out of the business of enforcing marijuana prohibition. It’s a broken system. It damages lives.”