Amid protracted negotiations between New York state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) over how to legalize marijuana in the state, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is siding with the legislature.
In a statement posted to Twitter late Tuesday, Schumer thanked New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D) and Sen. Liz Krueger (D), the lawmakers behind the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), adding that he’s “hopeful a deal can be reached soon that will provide a boost to our recovering economy and end over-criminalization.”
“As a deal comes close to getting done,” Schumer said, “I urge our leaders in Albany to keep front and center the effort to repair the harm done by marijuana prohibition.”
On the efforts to achieve marijuana reform in NY:
I'm urging leaders in Albany to keep front & center the effort to repair the harm done by prohibition
And I look forward to continuing the fight to end the federal prohibition on marijuana and undo the damage of the War on Drugs pic.twitter.com/8dEp6Mifp7
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) March 17, 2021
Legislative leaders in recent weeks have been working to get Cuomo on board with their proposal, which advocates say is far stronger on racial justice than the plan the governor included in his budget. While both sides have repeatedly stressed that a deal is imminent, they’ve also acknowledged running into snags along the way. Last week talking turned into screaming, according to Peoples-Stokes, and on Tuesday a top senator said the negotiations “reached a little bit of an impasse” over a provision related to impaired driving.
Schumer said he was “glad that all sides are working hard to push this over the finish line” but did not mention Cuomo by name. The governor is currently embroiled in a number of scandals, including allegations of sexual harassment, and is facing growing calls for his resignation.
In Congress, meanwhile, Schumer is leading a charge for legalization along with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). The trio held an initial meeting with advocates last month and are now in the process of drafting the bill.
Legalizing marijuana in New York, Schumer said, “will only add momentum to our vital efforts to reform marijuana laws at the federal level.”
New York drug policy reform advocates, who’ve criticized Cuomo’s plan as motivated more by tax revenue than criminal justice, welcomed Schumer’s statement on legalization in his home state.
“Senator Schumer’s statement importantly underscores that—given the scope of harm in New York from marijuana criminalization—our policy solutions as we legalize have to be as comprehensive as the damage that has been done to communities,” Melissa Moore, New York state director for the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment in an email. “That means real community reinvestment with cannabis tax revenue and robust social equity and economic justice provisions.”
“We will be working to pass the MRTA to, as Senator Schumer highlighted, ensure justice and restitution for impacted communities,” she said.
EXACTLY! @SenSchumer has it right 👏🏾
New York's legalization must center justice, equity & reinvestment and also prevent further criminalization and racial disparities.
— SMART-NY (@startsmartNY) March 17, 2021
Many of the issues Schumer raised in his statement speak directly to the differences between the two legalization plans:
“We must ensure that tax dollars flow to communities harmed by over-criminalization; small entrepreneurs and directly impacted people have an opportunity to enter the market through strong social equity provisions; marijuana is not used as pretext for criminalizing Black and Brown people, especially youth; and that individuals weighed down by past criminal convictions are given an opportunity to move on as productive members of society.”
While Cuomo has proposed amendments to his legislation intended to address certain concerns from lawmakers, particularly around social equity funding and criminal penalties for underage possession, advocates claimed Monday that Cuomo was attempting to preserve the ability for police to justify searches based on the smell of cannabis alone—a tactic used disproportionately to stop Black and brown people.
On Tuesday morning, however, Scott Hechinger, a senior attorney with the Brooklyn Defender Services, said pushback to that proposal was being felt in the governor’s office.
UPDATE: Hearing now that the outrage we fueled together over Cuomos insistence that cops get to continue using marijuana to violate the rights of Black & Brown New Yorkers as a condition for legalizing it, is working. Cuomo's resistance breaking down. Keep telling @NYGovCuomo NO! https://t.co/69Yq7vRh2o
— Scott Hechinger (@ScottHech) March 16, 2021
Remaining sticking points include how many plants adults will be able to cultivate for personal use, how to handle impaired driving cases and whether expungement of past convictions for cannabis-related crimes will happen automatically after legalization.
According to NYPD data, people of color made up 94 percent of marijuana arrests in New York City last year.
This is the third year in a row that Cuomo has included a legalization proposal in his budget proposal. 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.
Signals emerged from leaders in both the Senate and Assembly this week that they want to handle legalization as a standalone issue, ahead of the April 1 budget deadline.
The #MRTA would:
✔️allow adults 21 and older to legally possess, purchase, and consume cannabis for personal recreational use
✔️eliminate most existing misdemeanors and felonies related to cannabis + expand ways for people to have their records expunged
And much more.
— NYCLU (@NYCLU) March 17, 2021
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.”
Regardless of which direction the legislature ultimately goes on this issue, there’s growing recognition in the state that legalization is an inevitability. A Siena College survey released on Monday found that 59 percent of residents support adult-use legalization, compared to 33 percent who are opposed.
The top Republican in the New York Assembly said in December that he expects the legislature to legalize cannabis this coming session. And the state Senate majority leader said last year that she also anticipates that the reform will advance in 2021.