New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced on May 16, 2019 that he was running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. He ended his campaign on September 20.
While the mayor was initially opposed to legalization, he made several attempts to reduce cannabis-related arrests in the city, but the policy changes never ended up achieving a key desired outcome of reducing racial disparities in marijuana enforcement. De Blasio finally came out in support of legalization in 2018, just days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) reversed his own longtime opposition.
This piece was last updated on October 9, 2019 to include the candidate’s statements and policy actions on marijuana since joining the race.
Here’s a detailed look at where de Blasio stands on marijuana.
Legislation And Policy Actions
One of the first actions de Blasio took to change the city’s marijuana policies was to instruct the New York Police Department (NYPD) to issue summons for individuals caught possessing 25 grams or less of cannabis in lieu of making arrests, with certain exceptions. That policy took effect in November 2014.
He campaigned on the reform promise, stating that marijuana convictions “have disastrous consequences,” particularly on minority communities.
“When people are stopped by the police and they empty their pockets and suddenly they get arrested for a small amount of possession, we need to end that practice,” he said. “People don’t need an arrest record for that kind of small thing.”
Police could still arrest people for public consumption or if they determined the individual’s intent was to sell cannabis or if the possession occurred in certain areas such as school zones. And apparently NYPD took advantage of that discretion, as a 2017 report from the Drug Policy Alliance showed that cannabis possession arrests during the de Blasio administration were higher from 2014 to 2016 than they were under then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani from 1994 to 1996.
What’s more, racial disparities remained strong despite de Blasio’s promises. Black and Hispanic New Yorkers represented 85 percent of the arrests, despite similar rates of consumption among white people.
De Blasio repeatedly pushed back against the report and disputed its findings.
I want to clear something up: marijuana possession arrests are down 37% since 2013, with fewer people arrested than the previous admin.
— Bill de Blasio (@BilldeBlasio) August 5, 2017
“The report ignores how this administration’s approach to enforcement has resulted in both a safer city and fairer enforcement of state criminal law, which continues to prohibit recreational marijuana use,” his office wrote in a blog post. “It also ignores the fact that New Yorkers makes tens of thousands of calls to 911 each year to complain about marijuana.”
Discussing racial inequities in enforcement, de Blasio told Politico that “anyone who says we want to make sure that the arrests are handled the same in communities of all different backgrounds, they are absolutely right.”
"I don't tolerate disparity," @BilldeBlasio says of racial disparities in marijuana arrests. Solution: "implicit bias training"
— Laura Nahmias (@nahmias) February 7, 2017
“That is the vision of this department and this administration. And we are going to keep driving that vision,” he said.
He also falsely claimed that his administration had ended arrests for low-level marijuana possession, saying that the administration has “been very consistent about moving away from arrest for low-level possession versus the other charges, which are entirely different.”
In 2018, de Blasio acknowledged that “there’s much more to be done” about disparities in policing and announced that NYPD would “overhaul and reform its policies related to marijuana enforcement.”
Mayor BDB announces that the NYPD will be further overhauling its approach to marijuana enforcement – taking dead aim at disparity still embedded in our justice system. pic.twitter.com/vS7HL4fzjk
— Eric Phillips (@EricFPhillips) May 15, 2018
The resulting policy change was that NYPD would no longer arrest people for smoking cannabis in public. Instead, it would issue summonses. Additionally, de Blasio announced that a working group would begin laying the groundwork for legalization.
He had hinted at giving his support for legalization in April 2018 even though he’d been previously opposed.
“The question keeps coming up and I think it’s fair that we need to do a deeper analysis and come up with an updated response, I want to do that,” he said at the time.
Two days after Cuomo announced that he was in favor of legalizing cannabis in New York, de Blasio said he also had a change of heart and that he too backs replacing prohibition with a regulated market.
“The legalization of marijuana in New York State is likely inevitable,” he said in May 2018. “Our city has to get rules in place before this happens and be prepared for the public safety, public health and financial impact.”
The legalization of marijuana in New York State is likely inevitable. Our city has to get rules in place before this happens and be prepared for the public safety, public health and financial impact. pic.twitter.com/5y40VlYhjG
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) May 22, 2018
He also predicted that legalization would happen “as early as” 2019.
When his office finally released its report on what a legal system would look like in the city, de Blasio said the focus should be on creating opportunities for communities that have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition.
Legalizing marijuana in New York is a change that must happen — and it must happen the right way. It's time to rewrite the rules of the past and marry opportunity with justice. pic.twitter.com/xrB4Vz3EWo
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) December 20, 2018
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get a historic issue right for future New Yorkers. Legal cannabis is coming to New York State,” he wrote in a cover letter to the report from his task force on cannabis. “When it does, we must do all we can to make sure that happens in a way that is safe, takes the health of New York City residents into account, and above all, provides opportunity while righting historic wrongs.”
The people who suffered most from the war on drugs should benefit the most from the legalization of cannabis. Read the full report from the Mayor's Task Force on Cannabis Legalization here: https://t.co/TW8gMgzZNp pic.twitter.com/iPNFNX7jEx
— NYC Mayor's Office (@NYCMayorsOffice) December 20, 2018
But while his proposed plan includes several provisions aimed at social equity—such as expunging the records of individuals with prior marijuana convictions—it also generated some controversy among reform advocates after he suggested using tax revenue from legal cannabis sales to improve the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
There's no way we can fix our subways and improve service without a new source of revenue. Congestion pricing, an internet sales tax and a tax on legalized marijuana are part of our plan to get trains running again – because New Yorkers have places to go.https://t.co/xat4vmaLOa
— NYC Mayor's Office (@NYCMayorsOffice) February 28, 2019
“There’s no way we can fix our subways and improve service without a new source of revenue,” he wrote. “Congestion pricing, an internet sales tax and a tax on legalized marijuana are part of our plan to get trains running again—because New Yorkers have places to go.”
Also in 2018, de Blasio said the city would move toward allowing safe consumption sites for illegal drugs to mitigate overdose deaths.
“After a rigorous review of similar efforts across the world, and after careful consideration of public health and safety expert views, we believe overdose prevention centers will save lives and get more New Yorkers into the treatment they need to beat this deadly addiction,” he said in a statement.
More recently, the mayor said he supported city council initiatives to ban pre-employment drug testing for certain jobs in the city and also prohibit the Department of Probation from conducting drug tests for cannabis. Despite his stated support and a pledge to sign the legislation into law, however, the proposals were enacted without his signature.
On The Campaign Trail
In May, de Blasio expressed concerns about how the New York State plans to implement legalization, stressing that it “it cannot lead to a new corporate reality.”
“It has to be done in a way that really empowers community-based businesses, particularly in communities of color that suffered for so long because of draconian laws that sent people to prison for low-level drug offenses,” he said.
He added that he doesn’t want to create “a new tobacco industry or a new opioid industry, done the wrong way.”
The mayor reiterated his concerns 11 days prior to the close of the legislative session in June. While he said he was advocating for lawmakers to pass legalization before the session ended, he went on to say he wants “to see it done in a way that doesn’t create a new monster corporate class.”
We need to legalize marijuana the RIGHT way. That means making sure corporations can’t dominate a new industry — and that communities most hurt by draconian drug laws have economic opportunity. pic.twitter.com/PoW9x6AD48
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) June 3, 2019
Later that month, de Blasio announced that police will limit arrests of students for low-level offenses such as marijuana possession.
“This is a moment of change, this is a moment where students are going to get the support they need to be their best selves,” he said of the policy change. “It’s going to help us build a stronger and fairer city.”
In October, the mayor told The Las Vegas Sun that he supports passing legislation allowing banks to service cannabis businesses while Congress continues to work toward ending federal marijuana prohibition.
“I think we need a method of legalization at the federal level that, in fact, uses the power of the law to disincentivize corporations and to support small businesses and community-based businesses, including in a lot of the communities that have suffered the brunt of draconian criminal justice legislation,” he said. “I see this as an opportunity to right a lot of wrongs, but to do that we’ve got to get the banking piece right.”
“If you don’t legalize banking for this industry here and now, you’re keeping it a cash industry, which is a boon to organized crime, it’s a boon to folks who want to not pay their taxes,” he added. “It’s absolutely backward. So while we’re sorting out the bigger issue, let’s legalize the banking for the states that have it on the way to legalizing it federally with a fair banking system and with those safeguards we need for everyone else.”
Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts
While de Blasio is striving to project an image of a reform-minded cannabis legalization advocate today, just a few years ago he was not quite so friendly to the idea of ending marijuana prohibition.
In August 2017, he said that he’s “not there yet” when it comes to legalization.
“There’s a major experiment happening in some states and some major American cities that’s going to tell us a lot,” he said. “But if you talk about the pros and cons, there are obviously some good arguments for legalization, but there’s also a lot of unanswered questions both about what it would mean for young people to have access to that drug and also what it would mean in terms of public safety.”
“I’m not convinced that that’s the right direction to go in yet, but it’s something I’m willing to keep considering as we get more information from the places that have gone through it,” he said.
The next month, he said at a Democratic mayoral debate, de Blasio said he opposed legalization and that “the laws we have now are the right laws.”
After being confronted by a Staten Island resident about the scent of cannabis that he claimed could be smelled across the city, the mayor responded “the question is, how do you fix the quality of life for me, the guy who’s always followed the rules against the guy who’s not following the rules and is bombarding me with this marijuana smoke every house, everywhere I go throughout the city?”
“What we changed about marijuana is we focused on making fewer arrests,” he said. “But there are summonses and there still is intense quality-of-life enforcement.”
De Blasio said he was “skeptical” about broad marijuana reform in January 2018. And he described the arrest rate for possession in New York City as “a normal level in the sense of what we were trying to achieve.”
You can listen to those remarks starting around 19:45 into the audio below:
Even as late as April 2018, the mayor continued to maintain that he’s “not there yet” on legalization, even as his wife voiced support for regulating cannabis.
He also expressed concerns that allowing legal cannabis sales would lead to corporations trying to “hook” young people on the product similar to the actions of the tobacco industry.
.@BilldeBlasio says if pot were legalized, it would become a corporate business and there would be efforts to hook young people ala the tobacco industry.
— Erin Durkin (@erinmdurkin) April 17, 2018
“I think it raises questions when any child dabbles with” drugs such as alcohol and marijuana, de Blasio said. “Those things go without saying as a parent.”
"As a parent it all worries me," says de Blasio. His own daughter has gone public with her own struggles with substance abuse. https://t.co/tPaN38reod
— Inside City Hall (@InsideCityHall) May 7, 2018
By the end of the year, however, de Blasio changed his tune. He said he’s become “convinced that we can establish a regulatory framework that keeps our streets safe, rights the wrongs of the past and gives economic opportunity to communities hit hardest by the war on drugs.”
“Legal cannabis is coming to New York State,” he said. “When it does, we must do all we can to make sure that happens in a way that is safe, takes the health of New York City residents into account, and above all, provides opportunity while righting historic wrongs.”
He detailed some of the nuances of his policy position in an interview with WNYC in December 2018. On home cultivation, the mayor said he believes “people should have the right to it,” but that “there needs to be limits.”
“My goal is that we avoid the corporatization of the marijuana industry,” he said during a speech in January 2019.
He expanded on that point during an appearance on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher the next month.
“For years and years, broken laws sent a huge number of Americans to jail, most of them were young people of color, and we’ve got an industry that now is just licking it’s chops, waiting to come in and corporatize marijuana—to do exactly what the tobacco industry did with cigarettes, to do exactly what the pharmaceutical industry did with things like Oxycontin,” he said. “What we need is legalize marijuana without corporatized marijuana.”
Speaking about his proposal to use tax revenue from cannabis sales to fund the MTA, de Blasio attempted a joke playing on stereotypes about marijuana consumers.
“Anyone who thinks our existing transit system can handle all that [population growth] is somebody who thinks marijuana has already been legalized in New York state, and is smoking some,” he said. “The fact is it’s impossible to do what we have to do in the city if we don’t expand mass transit options.”
Even before de Blasio got around to endorsing marijuana legalization, he was speaking out against the U.S. Justice Department’s drug policy moves under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The first "War on Drugs" didn't work. Sessions’ version won't either. It's immoral and discriminatory. We should fight any effort to go back
— Bill de Blasio (@BilldeBlasio) May 15, 2017
“Jeff Sessions’ sentencing policies will enrich private prison executives—and they‘ll make our communities less safe,” he wrote on Twitter in 2017. “The first ‘War on Drugs’ didn’t work. Sessions’ version won’t either. It’s immoral and discriminatory. We should fight any effort to go back.”
He characterized Sessions’s hostility to marijuana reform as a “vendetta” and said that it “is an attack on minority communities.” The comments came after Sessions rescinded Obama era guidance to federal prosecutors on priorities for cannabis enforcement in early 2018.
Jeff Sessions’ vendetta against legalized marijuana is an attack on minority communities. We know what the war on drugs does to communities of color. This is a step backward.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) January 5, 2018
“We know what the war on drugs does to communities of color,” he said. “This is a step backward.”
De Blasio also said that he spoke with President Donald Trump personally and urged him not to deport immigrants for low-level offenses, including marijuana possession.
The mayor said that he “emphasized that what we wanted to guard against was individuals who had done exceedingly low level crimes—and I’ll give you examples, someone has a small amount of marijuana, some who committed a traffic offense that did not cause any harm to anyone else.”
Personal Experience With Marijuana
De Blasio admitted to using marijuana “once or twice” while he was a student at New York University. But he’s denied rumors that he and his wife have smoked cannabis in the mayor’s office.
“I haven’t smoked marijuana since I was at NYU,” he said in 2015. “I think this job is truly 24/7, and you have to be alert at all times.” He jokingly said in 2017 that “some days I wish I did” still smoke cannabis.
Rumors about the mayor’s alleged marijuana use were bolstered after it was reported that de Blasio is a fan of reggae-style music from artists such as Bob Marley.
— MTV NEWS (@MTVNEWS) May 10, 2017
De Blasio’s daughter has struggled with alcohol and marijuana misuse, she said.
Marijuana Under A De Blasio Presidency
The mayor has undergone a significant evolution in his stance on marijuana policy over time. His support for legalization in New York indicates he would now be supportive of, or at least not vocally opposed to, broad federal reform if he were to assume the office of the presidency. However, speculation abounds as to whether his relatively recent anti-prohibition evolution was earnest or politically motivated in light of its following shifts by other politicians, which raises questions about how intensively he would prioritize drug policy reform from the Oval Office.
Federal Court Dismisses Suit Against DEA Over Marijuana Growing Applications
A federal court dismissed a lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Friday after determining that the agency had fulfilled a requirement to process applications for research-grade marijuana manufacturers.
DEA was sued in June after declining to act on the more than two dozen applications that it received for approval to cultivate cannabis for research purposes. It’s been more than three years since the agency first announced it was opening the process to consider additional producers.
The suit, brought by the Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI), argued that the marijuana grown at the University of Mississippi—currently the only facility that’s federally authorized to cultivate the plant—is of poor quality, does not reflect the diversity of products available on the commercial market and is therefore inadequate for clinical studies.
Indeed, that’s a point that several policymakers have made, and it’s bolstered by research demonstrating that the federal government’s cannabis is genetically closer to hemp than marijuana that consumers can obtain in state-legal markets.
In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered DEA to respond to the legal challenge within 30 days—and as that deadline approached in August, the agency published a notice in the Federal Register stating that it was taking steps to approve the pending applications.
Due to the volume of the applications, DEA said it would have to develop alternative rules to process them. And on Friday the court said that DEA had fulfilled its obligations and that the suit “is now moot.” While no applications have been approved to date, there’s a public comment period that will last until October 28 and then the agency will have an additional 90 days to take action on the inquiries.
“The Court dismissed our case because, according to the Court, DEA gave us the relief we had requested,” attorney Matt Zorn, who was involved in the suit, told Marijuana Moment. “Last week, on October 11, DEA published a correction to the notice it had previously published on August 26, two days before it had to respond to the Court’s order. The Court said this second notice meant there was nothing more the Court could give us.”
“The Court also declined to maintain jurisdiction over the case, because it did not find a history of chronic delay or bad faith in the record,” Zorn said. “But it also indicated that we could return to court if DEA significantly delays going forward.”
Sue Sisley, a researcher with SRI, said that despite the case being dismissed, it “moved the ball forward for everyone.”
“We would have liked to take the case one step further to ensure that all 33 applications are processed promptly—protecting the health and welfare of our nation’s medically ill patients ought to be a national priority for this administration,” she said. “By delaying these 33 applications, the administration has prevented our US scientists from investigating the clinical efficacy of real-world cannabis to treat combat veterans with PTSD. Fortunately, the Court’s order today allows us to return to court for additional relief if Trump’s DOJ/DEA continues to violate the law and put public health at risk through delay or otherwise.”
In a separate case in May, another federal court ordered DEA to “promptly” consider applications to reschedule cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act.
Read the appeals court’s ruling on the DEA marijuana application case below:
Former VA Secretary Who Oversaw Marijuana Research Blockade Now Backs Cannabis Studies For Veterans
Former U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary David Shulkin is officially on board with having the department research medical marijuana—a development that comes a year after he was in a position to actually make that happen.
In an interview with Task & Purpose that was published on Thursday, Shulkin said that “the time is now” for VA to facilitate studies into the therapeutic potential of cannabis for veterans.
“I believe that the VA should be involved in research on anything that could potentially help veterans and improve their health and well-being,” he said.
That appears to represent a notable departure from the position he held while he headed the department.
For example, VA under his leadership refused to provide assistance to an Arizona-based research facility that was soliciting veterans to participate in a federally approved clinical trial looking at the potential benefits of cannabis in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research involving medical marijuana, or to refer veterans to such research projects,” a VA official told Air Force Times in 2017. “The researcher is free to work with veterans service organizations and state veterans officials who may not face such restrictions to identify candidates for her study.”
But according to the Brookings Institute, that’s not an accurate assessment because “doctors and researchers at the VA or in VA hospitals could conduct research into the medical efficacy of marijuana while remaining completely compliant with federal laws, regulations, and the United States’ obligations under international agreements.”
While the former secretary still said during this latest interview that congressional action is necessary to prompt VA research efforts, he seems to have become decidedly more vocal about the importance of such studies as compared to his time in office.
“In particular, with the VA’s focus on suicide as the top priority, people just don’t take their lives because of no reason,” he said. “They take their lives, often because of issues related to chronic pain, depression, substance abuse, and there is growing evidence that medical marijuana—I’m not talking about recreational marijuana—but properly prescribed, may have some real benefits in anxiety improvement, in pain management, and potentially, in the issue of substance abuse.”
“And therefore, I believe it’s extremely appropriate for VA to be researching and developing therapies that can help veterans, particularly in areas where we don’t have enough good therapies or answers,” he said.
Task & Purpose followed up to ask about potential obstacles such to having VA conduct research into the issue, and Shulkin said that because marijuana is a federally controlled substance, “the challenge of doing research with the regulations, and the hoops that you have to go through, are making it too difficult to do for many of the researchers.”
“I do think that the way forward is a legislative solution, much of what VA responds to are changes in the law, where medical research for veterans in this area could be streamlined and clarity around what regulations and rules need to be followed to be able to do this research, as well as guidance about the type of research that can and should be done, which reports back to Congress.”
He added that he doesn’t anticipate that President Trump would resist legislation empowering VA to study marijuana for veterans.
Brad Burge, director of strategic communication at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the group behind the study into cannabis for PTSD, told Marijuana Moment that they are “pleased that Shulkin has now expressed his support for medical marijuana research, even though that support would have been much more valuable when he was still in office.”
“Nevertheless we are looking forward to the VA’s support of marijuana research and see Shulkin’s change of stance as a promising sign for veterans suffering from PTSD,” Burge said.
It wasn’t just that Shulkin’s VA put up roadblocks to cannabis research, he also resisted providing veterans with access to marijuana by declining to change internal VA policy that could empower its doctors to issue recommendations in states where it’s legal.
The reasoning, he said in 2017, is that it’s “not within our legal scope to study that in formal research programs or to prescribe medical marijuana, even in states where it’s legal” because of federal law. But advocates argued that the only thing standing in the way of VA cannabis research is VA policy itself, which Shulkin could have amended.
Getting a VA cannabis reform bill passed as the former official is now recommending has already proved difficult this year, with current VA officials voicing opposition during a congressional committee hearing in June to modest proposals such as allowing their doctors to recommend cannabis or even surveying veterans about their marijuana use.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) said that same month that he pulled an appropriations amendment to allow for VA marijuana recommendations from floor consideration partly because of opposition from the department.
Mexican Committees Unveil Marijuana Legalization Bill Ahead Of Supreme Court Deadline
Several Mexican Senate committees unveiled draft legislation late on Thursday to legalize marijuana.
Leaders of the Health, Justice, Public Security and Legislative Studies Committees announced last week that they would remain in permanent session to finalize the legalization bill ahead of a coming Supreme Court deadline.
The court determined last year that the country’s ban on personal cannabis consumption and cultivation is unconstitutional, though lawmakers now want to go even further by legalizing commercial production and sales.
The committees are expected to formally vote on the legislation in the coming days, after which point it will head to the full Senate and then the Chamber of Deputies. Leaders said a vote in the legislature could occur before the end of the month, though it’s possible they could ask the Supreme Court for a deadline extension.
Ayer, antes de medianoche, fue entregado a los senadores de las comisiones de Justicia, Salud, Estudios Legislativos, Segunda y Seguridad Pública el predictamen📃🌿 de la ‘Ley para la regulación de la cannabis’. Está conformado por 74 artículos y once transitorios. pic.twitter.com/8IKOF7pA1i
— Cáñamo México (@canamo_mexico) October 18, 2019
Here are some of the key provisions, according to a translation:
—Adults 18 and older can possess cannabis for personal use, cultivate up to four plants and purchase marijuana from licensed retailers.
—An independent body called the “Cannabis Institute” would be charged with issuing licenses, setting potency limits and monitoring the implementation of the law, among other responsibilities.
—Low-income individuals, small farmers and indigenous people would have licensing priority.
—Strict restrictions would be imposed on cannabis packaging. That includes requiring nondescript, standardized containers that do not feature depictions of real or fictional people or testimonials.
—Marijuana can only be consumed in private spaces.
—Only medical cannabis patients would be allowed to purchase infused edibles and beverages.
—Unregistered seeds or plants would be subject to forfeiture.
—No pesticides could be used on cannabis plants.
The bill seeks to “improve the living conditions of people living in the United Mexican States, combat the consequences of the problematic use of cannabis and reduce the crime incidence linked to drug trafficking [while] promoting peace, the security and well-being of individuals and communities,” according to the text.
Sen. Julio Menchaca Salazar, head of the Justice Committee, said in a tweet that “we are legislating to regulate the illicit market of the #marihuana and decrease the crime incidence linked to the #narcotráfico, promoting peace and security for all Mexicans.”
— Julio Menchaca S. (@Julio_Menchaca) October 18, 2019
Lawmakers have said that the legislation is largely based on a proposal that Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero filed last year while still serving as a senator, but the committees are also merging in provisions from among more than a dozen other marijuana reform bills that since have been introduced.
“They all have something good that we can be translating into law,” Menchaca Salazar, who is a member of the ruling MORENA party, said.
Debate on the measure will also be informed by findings from a series of events the Senate organized to gather public input on marijuana legalization. That includes a panel led by a former White House drug czar, who stressed the need for “robust regulations” of a legal cannabis market.
The leader of the MORENA party in the Senate, Sen. Ricardo Monreal, said earlier this month that the chamber was set to vote on a legalization bill ahead of the October 24 deadline.
“It will undoubtedly be a great discussion with the elements we have and also with all the willingness to incorporate the opinions of legislators, but it would come out this month, there are the conditions for that to be,” Menchaca Salazar said.
Read the full text of the Mexican committees’ marijuana legalization proposal below:
This story is developing and will be updated.