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Legalizing Marijuana Is Cuomo’s 2021 ‘Priority’ For New York To Be ‘Progressive Capital’ Of U.S.

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said on Wednesday that he and lawmakers are “inches” away from reaching a final deal on a bill to legalize marijuana, adding that enacting the reform is a “priority” this year to make the state the most progressive in the nation.

Legislative leaders have signaled that they’re agreed to compromises with the governor on most significant issues, but they’re still working the legislation to resolve differences in “shall” versus “may” language on some provisions, make additional small technical changes and address issues such as technology to detect impaired driving.

“I believe New York is the progressive capital of the nation—not just because we say it is but because we perform that way. And legalizing cannabis is this year’s priority to be the progressive capital of the nation,” Cuomo said in a briefing with reporters. “We won’t be the first, but our program will be the best.”

But in order to assume that title, there needs to be a deal. The governor said negotiationr are “close, but we’ve been close three times before.”

“If we were playing horseshoes, we’d be in good shape. But this is not horseshoes. You either get it done and sign a bill or you don’t,” he said, adding that the reality is that surrounding states like New Jersey and Massachusetts have already moved to enact the policy change.

“We have passed the point of legalized cannabis,” the governor said. “To say we’re going to stop it is not an option. It is here. The only question is do we regulate it here, do we gather the revenue here or do we have people driving to New Jersey—it is right there—or to Massachusetts if you’re in the northern part of the state.”

He said “this year we have to get it done, and getting it done by the time the budget is passed is essential.”

“This is getting it over the goal line,” Cuomo said. “And those last few inches are tend to be the toughest, but that’s a top priority.”

Legislators in both chambers have been actively working to forge a compromise on outstanding differences this week, holding virtual meetings as they finalize the language. If bill text is posted on Wednesday, the legislature could vote on it as early as Saturday.

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D), sponsor of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) told The Buffalo News that the deal is “down to the word ‘may’ or ‘shall’ and commas or periods.” But there are also some more substantive issues at play, such as how to address impaired driving.

While some members suggested that police should be allowed to use devices that companies claim can detect THC impairment, other have argued that the evidence is not there yet. Lawmakers reportedly agreed to include language requiring the state Health Department to study on saliva-based marijuana field tests, and once they determine the technology works, police would be allowed to utilize it without further legislation.

Another tentative deal would make it so driving while impaired from cannabis would be a violation, rather than a misdemeanor.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said on Tuesday that the legislature is “really, really, really close on marijuana” following negotiations with executive staff office over recent weeks. “We have gotten past the impasse of the impaired driving.”

Lawmakers might have a “conceptual agreement” on legalization, as a New York Post reporter framed it, but they are also still working out differences on cannabis tax revenue distribution, licensing and packaging requirements. With respect to revenue, debate is centering on how to allocate those tax dollars for education.

Senate Finance Chairwoman Liz Krueger (D), sponsor of the Senate companion version of the MRTA, said that they agreed-upon legislation will “ensure 50 percent equity of all licenses go to these communities and the money that is eventually collected in revenue will also be primarily focused on benefitting these communities,” adding “we’re pretty excited about this whole thing.”

A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D) said on Tuesday that they were “discussing it with our members today and hopefully they can come to a deal.”

Legislators also signaled last week that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) had ceded to them on two other key components: one to allow adults to cultivate cannabis for personal use and another concerning how to allocate marijuana tax revenue for social equity purposes.

The legislature has also made clear that, despite the governor’s prior longstanding push to pass legalization through the budget, the issue will be handled as a standalone bill outside of that process. Stewart-Cousins confirmed on Tuesday that that’s still the plan.

Krueger said last week that she’s “feeling that there is impetus to get this done as quickly as possible, and I am prepared to do everything in my power to close this out, get this bill to both floors and get it signed by the governor.”

There’s been speculation that the growing number of sexual harassment allegations against the governor—in addition to controversy over the state’s handling of nursing home COVID-19 death data—would leave him with less political clout to negotiate on behalf of his proposal over that of the lawmakers.

Krueger said that “you can’t ignore the fact that there was an interest in getting the marijuana bill done” on the governor’s end as these allegations were raised. “That seemed to pop up at around the same time.” However, she caveated, “pick a day and another shoe was dropping for the Cuomo administration.”

Public defender and activist Eli Northrup previously said that he’s heard from sources that Cuomo was pushing to have the legislation make it so police could continue to justify stops and searches based on the odor of cannabis alone, regardless of its legalization.

Advocates strongly oppose that policy—and while it remains to be seen whether it will be included in the forthcoming bill, Scott Hechinger, a senior attorney with the Brooklyn Defender Services, said signs indicate that the pushback to that proposal was being felt by negotiations working on the cannabis legislation.

“We’ve been working on a marijuana bill. I’ve had a number of conversations with members,” the governor said last week. “We’ve been making good progress.”

Peoples-Stokes (D), the Assembly sponsor of MRTA, said earlier this month that talks “are really good and really fruitful and I’m really encouraged.” In fact, “I’ve never felt this encouraged before.” That’s despite her saying just days earlier that talks with the governor’s office over the legalization legislation had become heated to the point of screaming.

A state budget spokesperson said that the “administration is working with all parties to pass a comprehensive regulatory structure for adult-use cannabis that prioritizes social equity, social justice, economic development, and the public health and safety of all New Yorkers.”

Cuomo proposed amendments to his legislation last month that he hoped would address certain concerns from lawmakers and advocates. The changes primarily concern that issues such as social equity funding and criminal penalties for underage marijuana possession.

Another factor working against Cuomo is that Democrats now have supermajority control over the legislature, which could empower them to override a potential veto if they were to pass the MRTA against the governor’s wishes.

New York lawmakers last month held the first public hearing of the year on proposals to legalize cannabis, specifically focusing on budget implications.

Legislators heard testimony during the joint session from two pro-legalization industry representatives and one opponent. Despite their ideological differences when it comes to legalization in general, all three panelists were critical of Cuomo’s reform proposal. The two reform advocates said they would prefer to advance the MRTA over his legislation.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D)—who would become governor is Cuomo were to resign or be impeached—told Marijuana Moment in a January interview that there would be room for revisions to the current governor’s plan, stating that “much of it is going to be negotiated with the legislature, and all these details can be resolved with their input as well.”

Cuomo said that the changes in his bill reflect “the conversations we’ve had, but I’m hopeful that we can come to an agreement and we can get it done. He added that he believes, “because I’ve seen this movie before, “if we don’t get it done by April 1, we won’t get it done.”

This is the third year in a row that Cuomo has included a legalization proposal in his budget plan. The last two times, negotiations with the legislature stalled amid disagreements over certain components such as the tax structure for the market and funding for social equity programs.

Regardless of which direction the legislature ultimately goes on this issue, there’s growing recognition in the state that legalization is an inevitability.

The top Republican in the New York Assembly said in December that he expects the legislature to legalize cannabis this session.

Stewart-Cousins said in November that she also anticipates that the reform will advance in 2021, though she noted that lawmakers will still have to decide on how tax revenue from marijuana sales is distributed.

Cuomo also said that month that the “pressure will be on” to legalize cannabis in the state and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to boost the economy amid the health crisis.

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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