Recreational Cannabis Legalization Stalls Again in NY; Cuomo Pushes for Decriminalization

Sen. Liz Krueger, D-New York. Photo Credit: Hans Pennink/AP/Shutterstock
June 19, 2019

By Chloe Aiello

Recreational cannabis legalization has ground to a halt in New York ー for the second time this year. Just months after a push by Gov. Andrew Cuomo failed to get legalization provisions into the state budget, a last ditch effort to pass a comprehensive legalization bill through the state legislature fizzled out on Wednesday.

Democratic State Senator Liz Krueger, sponsor of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, admitted defeat in a statement on Wednesday morning, saying the legislators “came very close to crossing the finish line, but we ran out of time.”

“This is not the end of the road, it is only a delay. Unfortunately, that delay means countless more New Yorkers will have their lives upended by unnecessary and racially disparate enforcement measures before we inevitably legalize,” Krueger said in a statement.

The bill, championed by Krueger and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat from Buffalo, proposed a broad and progressive approach to legalization which would have regulated recreational sales, expunged past cannabis-related convictions, and allocated significant portions of tax revenues toward reinvestment in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the cannabis criminalization. The latest version of the bill was popular among activists, but several points of contention, including the bill's opt-out provisions for localities, handling of drugged driving, and tax revenue allocation proved insurmountable for the state senate.

"I said from the beginning of this session that I believed marijuana legalization had the best chance of being passed in this year's budget. Today, the Senate confirmed that it does not have the votes to move forward with legalization," Cuomo said in a statement, alluding to his failed budget proposal earlier in the year.

A decriminalization bill that has also been making its way through the state legislature has been pitched as a backup to full legalization. Cuomo said he would issue a "message of necessity" to expedite passage of that bill, so legislators can get decriminalization, at the very least, passed by the end of the session on Wednesday.

"I was asked earlier this week on a radio show if I would settle for decriminalization as a backup, and I said I keep fighting and only 'tend to give up on hour 20 when there's four hours left in the session'. We have now reached 'hour twenty,'" Cuomo said in a statement.

The Wall Street Journal reported that, following the demise of full legalization, lobbyists would throw their weight behind the aforementioned decriminalization bill, as well as others that expand the existing medical marijuana program and seek to regulate hemp. This approach would have New York follow in the footsteps of New Jersey, which after failing to legalize recreational cannabis in March, has adopted a more piecemeal approach to legalization.

But activists say the decriminalization bill doesn't go far enough to remedy the damaging effects of cannabis criminalization on minority communities.

"Decriminalization alone is not enough to deal with the full impact of marijuana prohibition and just gives law enforcement discretion. Actually addressing the legacy of harm from prohibition and targeted enforcement by comprehensively legalizing and reinvesting in communities is what policymakers need to deliver on," Kassandra Frederique, New York state director at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement.

Troy Smit, deputy director of the Empire State chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML), added that the bill's lack of support in the Senate amounted to a "betrayal by the Democratic caucus that blocked this measure," but thanked Sen. Krueger and Assemblywoman Peoples-Stokes for refusing to compromise on key issues like reinvestment.

With the bill pulled from consideration this session, legislators will likely have to wait until 2020 to vote on recreational cannabis legalization.