New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said on Tuesday that passing marijuana legalization before the end of the legislative session is a top-10 priority.
Efforts to legalize cannabis through the legislature have stalled in part due to a changing political dynamic in light of neighboring New Jersey’s failure to get a legalization bill over the finish line this year and because some senators want voters to first approve the idea of ending cannabis prohibition through a referendum, he said.
But in two separate radio interviews, the governor challenged lawmakers to capitalize on a growing pro-legalization sentiment and get a bill to his desk before the session ends on June 19.
Cuomo seemed open to the prospect of a referendum vote, but he made clear that the fight in the legislature isn’t over yet. He expressed frustration that lawmakers are falling short of their legalization promise for political reasons and not necessarily because they take issue with the merits of cannabis reform.
A revised version of a pending legalization bill was introduced in the legislature on Friday, with new provisions that would allow for the expungement of records for prior cannabis-related convictions and set guidelines for the production, processing and sale of marijuana, for example.
Cuomo’s original plan was to include cannabis legalization in the state budget but, after failing to reach compromises with legislators ahead of the April 1 deadline, it was ultimately cut from the spending package. That version included some provisions that proved controversial for advocates, including a ban on home cultivation that several large marijuana businesses pushed for.
The amended version of the pending standalone bill does provide for home cultivation.
Cuomo said the expungement addition wasn’t a “dealbreaker”—even though his initial proposal called for the the less-far-reaching step of sealing of records—but added that some thorny questions still have to be resolved such as setting limits on home cultivation, how tax revenue from cannabis sales should be spent and who should be responsible for issuing licenses for dispensaries.
“But I don’t think the issue here is even that. I don’t think it’s going to be on the merits—I think it’s on the politics,” he told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer. “New Jersey was going to legalize it. New Jersey stopped. I think that started to shift the political environment.”
Listen to Cuomo discuss marijuana politics around 10:00 into the audio below:
Cuomo cited senators who’ve told reporters that there isn’t enough support in the chamber “to pass it politically.”
“I think that’s the problem here, is the political reality that you don’t have the votes in the Senate,” he said. “I support it, I proposed, but we’re getting down to the final three weeks or so, and they’re still saying they don’t have the votes.”
The host asked Cuomo if it was possible that lawmakers could reach compromises on certain provisions to get the legislation passed before the session’s end. Allowing individual jurisdictions to opt out of allowing marijuana businesses to operate could represent one such compromise, Lehrer said.
“I’ve tried a number of things. The opting out provision I’ve tried,” Cuomo said. “The opposition Senate position is there is no state that has passed it without a referendum. It’s never been done just by the legislature.”
“I believe Jersey may be moving to a referendum also, but Massachusetts, et cetera, the legislature acted after a referendum,” he added. “So that’s what the senators who oppose it say—they think it’s an overreach by the legislature.”
New Jersey lawmakers announced earlier this month that after months of debate and negotiations, they were not able to reach a compromise on legalization legislation and would instead focus on getting the issue on the state’s 2020 ballot.
It’s possible that New York could see a ballot referendum on the issue to get a “sense of the people,” Cuomo said. Theoretically, voters could approve a legalization referendum and the legislature could then take action. But the governor repeated that it’s politics that’s holding back legislative reform and “everything else is smoke.”
“The Senate promised in their campaign—we have a Democratic Senate now for the first time, and I supported them and I worked very hard for them—and this was one of the big campaign issues,” Cuomo said. “And the senators say that they don’t have the votes, and at the end of the day if you don’t have the votes, you don’t have the votes.”
Even so, Cuomo didn’t rule out the possibility of passing cannabis legalization this session, despite the issue being “very difficult.”
He told WAMC in a separate interview on Tuesday that marijuana reform remains a central tenet of his agenda, even if he’s facing a resistance in the Senate.
@cuomo tells @AlanChartock he has 10 items on his list:
-paid birth surrogacy
-ERA in state constitution
-end statute of limitations for rape
-end gay panic defense
-drivers licenses for the undocumented
— FRED MOGUL (@fredmogul) May 28, 2019
(You can listen to the conversation by following this link; the discussion on cannabis starts at about 11:00.)
“They have work to do,” he said. “They are stopping surrogacy, they are stopping the ERA, they are stopping marijuana, they are stopping drivers licenses, they are stopping prevailing wages, they are stopping gay panic defense.”
Legislators “need to get things done if they’re going to vindicate the promise they made the people of this state when we elected a Democratic Senate and we promised the most progressive laws in the country,” he said.