New York, long conservative on cannabis, tiptoes toward legalization

Politically outflanked on all sides by a sweeping states-led movement toward legal adult-use cannabis, politics and reality caught up to New York state this week as the administration of its powerful Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, cracked the door to legalized recreational use of cannabis for the first time. The move reflected the state’s cautious approach, as New York’s top Department of Health official said at a news conference that the department would release a report recommending the state move forward with allowing cannabis to be sold for recreational purposes.

A recent report by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer estimated that New York state’s market could be $3.1 billion, bigger than current markets in Colorado and Washington combined. New York City would likely become one of the country’s biggest markets and has long been a tantalizing industry target. In recent years, though, it’s also been elusive despite the state and city’s proclaimed Democratic and progressive agendas. As New York has inched forward, it is now surrounded by legalization: sales go live in border state Massachusetts in the coming weeks, Vermont legalized cannabis (but not sales) this year, Canada’s legalization bill will go into effect in October, and New Jersey could legalize by the end of the year.   

With all of the legal cannabis movement, Gov. Cuomo’s longtime reluctance on the issue — he called it a “gateway drug” last year — has led to some head-scratching in New York.

Cuomo and other Democratic leaders, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, are seeing shifting political headwinds and are expected to inch toward loosening cannabis laws, but neither Cuomo nor de Blasio yet support legalization. Both, especially the New York mayor, have stated a desire to reform law enforcement strategies shown to have a disproportionate effect on people of color and have strengthened policies aimed at decriminalization in the city and state.

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Still, a limited, relatively conservative cannabis approach is expected to reign, at least at first. In 2014, when the state first allowed for medical marijuana, the state allowed just five cannabis dispensary companies to operate statewide. Last year, it increased that number to 10 and has gradually added the kinds of conditions for patients to qualify to include individuals with more common conditions like chronic pain.  

Election year politics likely accelerated the cannabis debate for New Yorkers: Cynthia Nixon, an actress and activist turned Cuomo challenger, pushed cannabis into the gubernatorial campaign race right out of the gate, seeking to portray Cuomo as an out of touch “suburban dad” for his reluctance to back legalization.

The reality of recreational use cannabis is hardly set in stone, even as some advocates cheered the announcement Monday by New York Department of Health Commissioner Howard  Zucker at a press conference in Brooklyn where he said a long-awaited state study on recreational cannabis would call for its statewide legalization. The optics of caution, though, were telling: Zucker made the announcement at the end of a press conference about expanding the state’s medical marijuana program to those with opiod prescriptions, left the details of the state’s legalization report a mystery, and said only that the full report would be available “soon.”

A Cuomo campaign spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment, but Zucker said the governor would review the report when it’s finalized.

“We have new facts, we have new data, and as a result of that we made a decision to move forward,” Zucker told reporters, according to a recording made available to Cannabis Wire by the health department.

Still, even as Commissioner Zucker’s announcement represents a definitive, albeit incremental, move toward recreational cannabis legalization, it comes with caveats for advocates who have worked on the issue.

David Holland, the executive director of NORML Empire State, a legalization advocacy group, told Cannabis Wire that the state could still recommend cumbersome restrictions for a recreational use program.

“To me it’s the equivalent of an absolute maybe,” Holland said of the state’s announcement. “I’ll believe it when I see it. It’s just a way of pandering for votes. I don’t think (Cuomo) agrees with it. I don’t think he’s ever agreed with it.”

On Tuesday, de Blasio followed up with an announcement of his own on cannabis-related issues, saying at a press conference that city police would seek to issue summonses instead of making arrests for cannabis offenses — in NYC, personal possession of small amounts of marijuana is decriminalized, but not if smoked publically. There are exceptions if police officers smell cannabis, however, including a greater likelihood of arrest for those with criminal records and in other instances where officers deem it necessary.

The announcement comes on the heels of advocacy by the Drug Policy Alliance and a May 13 New York Times report that ran with the headline “Surest Way to Face Marijuana Charges in New York: Be Black or Hispanic.”

Mayor de Blasio made sure to be clear that New Yorkers shouldn’t smoke cannabis in public, even though it’s a common, if illegal, practice. “No one should be smoking marijuana in public, it’s illegal, period,” he said. “Don’t do it to begin with.  If you do so you will get a sanction… You have to address your summons. A summons can lead to a warrant. A warrant can lead to an arrest.” He added: “The individual has some real responsibility here.”

Even as city officials promised 10,000 fewer marijuana-related arrests per year, advocates said the new policy wouldn’t address racial disparities in marijuana-related enforcement.

Advocacy groups VOCAL-NY and the Drug Policy Alliance blasted the city’s new policy.

“The exceptions that the Mayor has laid out — arrests for people on parole or probation, people with criminal records, people with warrants or lacking ID, or for ‘officer discretion’ — will compound existing collateral consequences and all but guarantee the status quo of racial disparity continues,” the groups said in a joint press release. “We have firmly said there should be no arrests, no summonses, no using marijuana as a pretext for police interactions.”

Both de Blasio and the police commissioner said they would be voices of restraint as the state considers legalizing recreational marijuana. “As we move forward here we have to carefully consider what this means for the safety of all New Yorkers,” NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said. The mayor’s office also said it would appoint a task force to study the “health and financial consequences should the State move forward with legalization,” and deliver a report on the issue by the end of the year.  

Chris Alexander, a policy coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance, told Cannabis Wire that many don’t realize how New York’s peculiar politics plays into the cannabis debate. Given a governor “vocally against marijuana just broadly for years” and a Republican-controlled state Senate, the issue hasn’t gained traction. The NYPD also represents a willful political force, meaning legalization of cannabis will be hard-fought.

“The NYPD is going to hold onto this as long as they can,” Alexander said. He also explained that because officers can use the smell of cannabis to investigate or stop someone, police officials consider it a needed tool to combat crime in general.

Alexander disagrees with the tactic, alleging it simply contributes to racist policing. “The problem was that you were only arresting black and Latino people,” Alexander said of the city’s record on cannabis arrests. “You’re still using marijuana, again, to continue incarcerating people.”

The Drug Policy Alliance and other advocates hope Cuomo throws his support behind the proposed Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, a bill they and others have touted as a “gold standard” because they say it deals with cannabis regulation comprehensively and seeks to ensure that communities that have suffered the worst effects of the drug wars and continued arrests benefit from the economic boon recreational cannabis sales would bring.  

Treatment groups and doctors will also likely shape the legalization debate. Kyle Plaske, the public policy coordinator for the NY Association of Alcoholism & Substance Abuse Providers, said in an email to members that the group should respond “as we do when there is an expansion in the availability of gambling or alcohol” and would push to “emphasize the need for high-quality education and prevention initiatives in communities across NY.”

Cannabis business leaders are already using the state’s move toward legalization as an opening — after all, it could mean a huge financial windfall. In a press release, Kevin Murphy, the CEO of Acreage Holdings, a well-financed corporation that is seeking to become the “world’s leading cannabis company,” according to its website, saw the New York announcement as a reason to give lawmakers a push on the issue. Murphy, who recently enlisted the help of former Republican House Speaker John Boehner to push for federal legalization, said Senate Republicans should get on board as other states around New York embrace cannabis sales for recreational use.

Murphy combined those arguments into a package fit for the state’s GOP: “Republicans may not want to see adult-use, but the fact is if (Massachusetts and New Jersey) and other states move to adult-use, you are creating an untenable situation for enforcement.”

This story was first published in a Cannabis Wire newsletter. 

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