Disagreements over revenue and reparations have held up proposals to legalize recreational marijuana in New York, but opportunities for compromise could come up in the weeks ahead.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to soon release suggested tweaks to his budget proposal, which included a plan to legalize the drug. Senate Democrats plan to unveil the latest version of their own legalization bill. And marijuana legalization could be part of the state budget proposals being prepared now by the Assembly and Senate.
Last year, New York softened some criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana and launched a process to automatically expunge the records of thousands of individuals convicted of low-level possession crimes.
Full legalization, however, broke down amid fights about just how the state should take steps to aid minority communities that were disproportionately harmed by the decades-long drug war. Those disputes remain unresolved.
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Some legislators have proposed setting aside 50% of marijuana tax revenue for grants to help such communities. Supporters, including Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, have said New York can’t pass a bill that doesn't dedicate revenue to those efforts.
Cuomo has proposed putting marijuana tax revenue in a fund that could be used for a wider variety of expenses, including encouraging minorities, women and disadvantaged farmers to join the cannabis industry, public health campaigns and offsetting the cost of regulating marijuana.
Activists say the governor's proposal is too vague and won't ensure New York heavily invests in things directly related to lifting up places that has suffered from mass incarceration, like community reentry programs for prisoners, job development, drug treatment and legal services. They also say Cuomo's proposal focuses too much on criminal penalties, rather than civil fines, to enforce marijuana laws.
“There's so much that we can do with revenue from marijuana, but it needs to be done in a way that creates a model for the nation,” said Jawanza James Williams, an organizer with the pro-legalization group VOCAL-NY. “How do we legalize marijuana while correcting wrongs?”
Cuomo said in a radio interview this week that it isn't clear yet whether lawmakers have the political will to make New York the 12th state to legalize recreational use.
“Yes, it's popular statewide, but there are still people with political qualms about it," he said.
Conservatives and some Senate Democrats representing Long Island still remain resistant to legalization, especially in an election year.
While the fight plays out in Albany, the drug remains illegal. Arrests are still happening. And New Yorkers continue to face repercussions if they are caught breaking the law.
Melissa Moore, deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said that while New York City saw fewer low-level pot arrests last year, blacks and Latinos continue to get locked up at higher rates than whites.
“It just goes to show that tinkering around the edges of the policy will never be enough to solve the problem we see,” she said.
Eli Northrup, policy counsel to the criminal defense practice at Bronx Defenders, said marijuana convictions are keeping people from getting jobs, putting immigrants at risk of deportation and complicating child custody matters.
“What people don’t feel is the urgency with this,” Northrup said. “White people, people in power, they don’t feel the effects of the marijuana laws because it doesn't directly affect them.”
Cuomo pushed for marijuana legalization in his annual State of the State address and announced efforts last fall to work with neighboring states on coordinated legalization policies. He has said legalization should pass through the state budget, which is due April 1.
Some legalization advocates question how committed the governor is to legalizing marijuana.
“I'm very concerned that if the governor does not amend his budget and legalize marijuana with the asks that we have, it's a massive mistake,” said VOCAL-NY's Williams.
Richard Azzopardi, senior adviser to Cuomo, said: “The governor said he’d sign a bill today and believes that the budget is the best vehicle to pass it in, and if these self-described activists want to actually be part of the solution, they should focus on ensuring legislative support is there."
Sen. Pete Harckham, a moderate Democrat from suburban Westchester County, recently announced he now supports marijuana legalization. He says his constituents support a Senate proposal to direct 25% of marijuana revenues to treatment and prevention.
“The question is are we directing resources to socially beneficial areas?” he said. “Or is this just going to go in the black hole of the state budget?”
Democrat Richard Gottfried, chair of the Assembly’s health committee, said lawmakers still need to bring more senators on board. Lawmakers could always work out a deal in the waning hours of the session, he said.
But he said it’s important for lawmakers to carefully consider revenue questions.
“It may seem to be small issues, but they can make a very big difference by the time we get a couple of years down the road in terms of who benefits from this new market,” Gottfried said.