New York Governor Cuomo Again Calls for Cannabis Legalization During State of the State

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In a State of the State speech unlike any other he’s given, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday morning focused on his plan to get New Yorkers on their feet again amid COVID-19.

Speaking from the War Room in Albany, Cuomo laid out the stark $15 billion budget gap that lawmakers are facing as the legislative session picks up. And, for the third time in as many years, Cuomo called for cannabis legalization to help fill that gap. 

“We will legalize adult use recreational cannabis, joining 15 other states who have already done so. This will raise revenue and will end the over-criminalization of this product that has left so many communities of color over-policed and over-incarcerated,” Cuomo said during his speech. 

Details, though, remained sparse. Cuomo is set to give three additional speeches in the coming days, each focused on specific policy areas. When asked whether cannabis would be among them, a Cuomo spokesperson told Cannabis Wire “not entirely,” adding that details are “forthcoming.” Cuomo’s budget is set to be released next week. Last week, as the legislative session kicked off, Cuomo announced his plans for 2021 include cannabis. As Cannabis Wire has reported, lawmakers have already introduced their own legalization bill.

In years past, negotiations fell apart by the budget deadline, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic taking priority, but also because lawmakers found legalization to be too big of a policy issue to pass in a sweeping package of legislation through the budget. Some lawmakers wanted to debate the finer points of legalization in committees. 

For the past two years, top lawmakers have also run their legalization pushes alongside Cuomo’s, in the form of bills. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Senator Liz Krueger are doing so again this year. 

Last week, Cuomo talked about his legalization plan after a reporter asked the governor about his thoughts on sports betting and cannabis legalization as potential sources of revenue for the state. 

“I think this should have been passed years ago. I think too many people have been imprisoned and incarcerated and punished. Too many of those people are Black, Latino and poor. It’s exaggerated the injustice of the justice system,” Cuomo said during the news conference. “I supported it for years. I’ve tried to pass it. But this is a year where we do need the funding and a lot of New Yorkers are struggling. So I think this year will give us the momentum to get it over the goal line.” 

As Cannabis Wire has reported, lawmakers aren’t so certain that cannabis revenue, which could take years to materialize, should be pitched as a solution to patch up New York’s budget holes. 

“Is there a large amount of revenue to be expected in the early years from legalizing cannabis? No, there really is not. So, the state is still looking at an enormous hole in our revenue for the next few years. And I think that anyone who thinks marijuana is a significant silver bullet for that problem is incorrect,” Krueger, who represents the east side of Manhattan, told Cannabis Wire

Peoples-Stokes agrees that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has sparked budget deficits in many states, might be more of a discussion point than an actual catalyst for cannabis law reform in New York. 

“I respect whatever decision people come up with, but I don’t think it should be the pandemic that drives us to do something that’s right. But if that’s what it takes, let’s go,” Peoples-Stokes told Cannabis Wire.

The top areas of debate between Cuomo and lawmakers when it comes to legalization are likely to be specific equity provisions, cannabis tax allocation, and home grow. 

Last year, Krueger and Peoples-Stokes held a hard line that they would not support legalization legislation that directs the cannabis revenue to the general fund, which was Cuomo’s preference. That remains true this year. 

“There is a specific percentage of revenue that is in the legislation that I and Senator Krueger carry that will require investment into the lives of the people who have been disenfranchised by mass incarceration,” Peoples-Stokes told Cannabis Wire. Cannabis law enforcement has disproportionately targeted communities of color, and cannabis arrests can result in barriers to housing and employment, among others. 

“We don’t have to wonder who those people are. We can look at the George Floyd movement and see them loud and clear,” Peoples-Stokes said. 

Even as cannabis arrests have dropped in New York City after decriminalization, criminal penalties still disproportionately affect people of color, as Cannabis Wire recently reported

“In 2019, marijuana possession was the most common charge for criminal summons issuance, and also led to the greatest number and proportion of warrants issued,” a new report by the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice concludes. 

There is great interest in New York’s future cannabis industry, as evidenced by the lobbying activity in the state. Some of the companies with the largest cannabis footprints have registered to lobby in the state, as Cannabis Wire has reported

The New York State Bar Association cheered Cuomo’s announcement last week about his cannabis plan. The law group named cannabis legalization as a 2021 legislative priority, and NYSBA’s House of Delegates adopted a 2020 report drafted by the organization’s Committee on Cannabis Law that focused on challenges and opportunities that legalization could bring to New York.

“Governor Cuomo rightly recognizes the significant opportunity a well-regulated adult-use cannabis program presents when it comes to generating much-needed revenue and jobs for New York,” NYSBA President Scott Karson said in a statement. 

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