The prospect of legalizing marijuana in New York through the budget this year appears increasingly dim, with leading lawmakers indicating that state’s urgent need to contain the coronavirus will overshadow other legislative priorities such as cannabis reform.
The sponsor of a comprehensive legalization bill, Sen. Liz Krueger (D), said on Wednesday that she now doesn’t expect lawmakers to reach an agreement to include the policy change in the budget despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) repeatedly arguing that the spending legislation is the ideal vehicle to get it done.
“I don’t believe marijuana is going to be negotiated in this budget in the next few days,” Krueger, chair of the Senate Finance Committee that’s responsible for budget negotiations, told WMHT. “I just don’t see it as realistic.”
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D), however, said it is too soon to tell what will make it into the budget.
“I can’t tell you necessarily what’s in, what’s out. I think we’re all kind of looking at numbers,” he said. “I think that’s kind of where we are. So I can’t tell you what’s in or out at this point.”
While the budget technically has an April 1 deadline, lawmakers in recent days have talked about moving it on an expedited basis due to COVD-19, potentially voting as soon as Friday.
If cannabis is left out of the spending bill, it will remain to be seen whether lawmakers will continue to pursue legalization through standalone legislation. Marijuana Moment reached out to Krueger’s office for comment on the plan moving forward but a representative was not immediately available.
Cuomo, who also stressed the need for legalization in his State of the State address in January, seemed pessimistic about the legislature’s ability to approve it outside of that process last week, telling reporters that “without the budget, the easiest thing for a legislative body to do is to do nothing.”
Advocates are at least happy with Krueger’s standalone legalization bill, a revised version of which was released last week. It would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase cannabis products from licensed retailers. An 18 percent tax would be imposed on sales, with revenue going toward implementation costs, education, substance misuse treatment and community reinvestment grants.
It notably also includes a recreational home grow option—a policy that wasn’t featured in the governor’s budget request, which only allows for personal cultivation of medical cannabis.
Some Republican lawmakers are actively encouraging the administration and reform allies to drop the issue of legalization as it concerns the budget.
Assemblyman Robert Smullen (R) wrote in a column on Wednesday that the coronavirus underscores the need to put public health first, and he argued that marijuana reform runs counter to that objective.
“Now, in the midst of the public health crisis over the coronavirus, the governor’s budget proposal maintains that the legalization of marijuana is a major policy priority,” he said. “Since when did encouraging more people to smoke become a major budget priority? And this needs to be passed in a real health crisis?”
“Our immediate priority should be passing a budget extender to keep the government running while ensuring the state has the necessary resources to address the coronavirus crisis,” he added. “The potential legalization of marijuana and other unrelated policy issues should be legislated outside of the state budget when they can receive full and proper consideration.”
Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan issued a statement arguing that colleagues should not be “jamming completely unrelated and highly controversial policy measures in place when all New Yorkers are appropriately focused on dealing with this crisis,” though he didn’t mention cannabis specifically.
Prohibitionist group Smart Approaches To Marijuana, echoed that sentiment, writing in an email blast to its supporters that “now is not the time for lawmakers to be dedicating any thought towards any other issue, especially marijuana commercialization.”
Earlier this month, Cuomo said that the administration’s focus on responding to the viral outbreak could mean a delay of his planned tour of legal cannabis states to learn from their experiences, though he also pointed out that conversations he’s had with officials from nearby states about developing a regional marijuana legalization plan has developed relationships that have aided coronavirus coordination.
Across the country, the coronavirus crisis is interfering with drug policy reform initiatives, with campaigns stretching from California to Washington, D.C. requesting that state governments allow individuals to sign petitions electronically to qualify their measures for the November ballot.
Meanwhile, the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access is urging lawmakers to keep medical cannabis dispensaries open to ensure patients have access to their medicine.
Baltimore’s top prosecutor announced on Wednesday that her office will suspend pursuing certain low-level cases, including those for drug possession, to further prevent the spread of the virus.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.