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New York Marijuana Legalization Talks At ‘An Impasse’ Over Impaired Driving Policy

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Negotiations over a bill to legalize marijuana in New York have “reached a little bit of an impasse” over a provision related to impaired driving, a top senator said on Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) gave a status update on talks between the legislature and the governor’s office, which have been working steadily to reach a deal on cannabis reform legislation. And while impaired driving policy seems to be a sticking point, the leader said she’s “optimistic it will be resolved sooner than later.”

That optimism has been echoed by all parties in recent days, as legislators prepare to bring a legalization proposal to the floor. Stewart-Cousins said on a call with reporters that they are “extremely close” to an agreement, despite the remaining sticking points.

“We’re trying to figure a way forward so that there can be some understanding of safety,” she said. “I’m optimistic it can be resolved sooner rather than later.”

She also said “it’s no secret how disparately impacted Black and Brown communities have been by the disproportionate arrests and incarcerations by people with marijuana” and that legalization is “a matter of when, not if.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D) similarly said on Monday that action is imminent and that lawmakers are aiming to advance legalization before passing the budget, which is due by April 1. When Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) unveiled his reform proposal, he insisted that it needed to be approved as part of the budget, but he seems to have backed down on that strategy.

Heastie said that he thinks “the executive is moving closer to where” the sponsors of a separate piece of legislation to end prohibition are. That bill from Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D) and Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Liz Krueger (D) is favored by advocates who feel it more comprehensively addresses issues of social equity.

Cuomo said on Monday that they are “very close” to reaching a deal. “We’ve tried to do that for the past three years, we have to get it done this year.”

Unlike past years, however, the legislature has made clear it intends to approve the policy change outside of the budget. That position was included in a Senate budget resolution, which also kept the governor’s proposal to increase funding for the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control to support the establishment of an office to regulate an adult-use cannabis market.

Another policy that was reportedly at issue in the legalization talks concerns the number of plants that adults could cultivate for personal use. Cuomo’s plan omitted a home grow option entirely, but advocates say it provides an important access point for people who don’t want to buy cannabis from stores. It’s unclear whether that component has been resolved as of Tuesday afternoon.


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Public defender and activist Eli Northrup said on Monday that he’s heard from sources that Cuomo is 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.

On Tuesday morning, however, Scott Hechinger, a senior attorney with the Brooklyn Defender Services, said signals indicate that the pushback to that proposal was being felt by negotiations working on the cannabis legislation.

Details of the final legislation might be pending, but polling shows that New Yorkers are ready for cannabis reform. A Siena College survey released on Monday found that 59 percent of residents support adult-use legalization, compared to 33 percent who are opposed.

“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.”

Krueger also said that lawmakers were “working hard on a three-way agreed upon bill that could pass the legislature before we get to the budget.” She added: “I feel like we are 95 percent there. We have taken some big steps towards getting this done.”

Peoples-Stokes said last week 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.”

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. Peoples-Stokes said previously that she wanted the legislature to take up the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) first and then consult the governor’s office about his plan.

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.

Last month, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D)—who would become governor is Cuomo were to resign or be impeached—told Marijuana Moment in an 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 coming 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.

Majority Of Florida Voters Back Marijuana Legalization And Oppose THC Limits, New Poll Finds

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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