The governor of New York said on Monday that he will be sending an amended version of his marijuana legalization proposal to the legislature this week, with hopes of striking a deal to pass the reform through the budget ahead of an April 1 deadline.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said during a press briefing that while he and lawmakers “don’t have an agreement yet,” he believes “we’re making progress.”
The comments come as leading legislators and cannabis reform advocates have harshly criticized aspects of Cuomo’s initial plan that he proposed as part of his budget last month.
“I’m sending an amended bill. Legalizing recreational marijuana is something we’ve tried to do for several years,” the governor said. “It is overdue in my opinion—you have people who are incarcerated for crimes that, frankly, they shouldn’t have a record on.”
Watch the governor discuss marijuana legalization developments below:
He added that the state also needs revenue from adult-use cannabis sales—a point he’s repeatedly emphasized since making the budget request. Especially amid the coronavirus pandemic, Cuomo says legalization represents one tool that could be used to fill a massive budget gap.
But it’s that line of thinking that has caused some splintering within the legislature over his proposal. While there’s generally consensus that New York should enact a regulated marijuana market, several top legislators have criticized Cuomo’s plan as prioritizing tax revenue while not doing enough to address the harms of the drug war.
Specifically, advocates and lawmakers have said that the governor’s proposal provides insufficient funding for social equity grants to ensure that people most impacted by cannabis prohibition are able to participate in the legal industry.
They’ve also taken issue with certain provisions like one that would increase penalties for selling cannabis to people under 21—making it a class D felony punishable by up to 2.5 years in prison instead of a misdemeanor as it currently is.
Pressed on that particular component, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) told Marijuana Moment in an interview earlier this month that there may be room for further revisions to the 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.”
Advocates also dislike that the Cuomo plan would continue to criminalize home cultivation of cannabis.
While it’s not yet clear which provisions the governor intends to change in his amended proposal, the ongoing areas of disagreement have led some lawmakers to push for the passage of a separate legalization bill out of the legislature first and then begin negotiations with Cuomo after that’s done.
Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D) said recently that “[the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act] should be passed on the floor of the legislature,” referring to a separate plan filed by lawmakers. “There are a number of things that need to be fixed [in the governor’s proposal], and if they’re not fixed, then we’ll be here next year trying to do the same thing.”
But Cuomo made clear on Monday that he sees the budget process as the way to enact the policy change.
“It is a controversial topic. It’s a controversial and a difficult vote. I get it,” he said. “I believe if we don’t have it done by the budget, we’re not going to get it done. And I think it would be a failing if we don’t get it done this year and I think that would be a mistake.”
“We’re setting up a new bill that reflects the conversations we’ve had, but I’m hopeful that we can come to an agreement and we can get it done,” he added. “But I believe—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 coming session.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) 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.
The push to legalize in New York could also be bolstered by the fact that voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a legalization referendum in November.
Separately, several other bills that focus on medical marijuana were recently prefiled in New York, and they touch on a wide range of topics—from tenants’ rights for medical cannabis patients to health insurance coverage for marijuana products.