New York would have become just the third state to legalize the drug through a legislative vote — rather than a ballot initiative — following Vermont and Illinois
(Bloomberg) — New York lawmakers failed to agree on how to legalize marijuana, dealing a setback to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s progressive agenda. Advocates said Cuomo and the state’s legislature didn’t appreciate the law’s criminal-justice consequences and didn’t push enough for legalization.
Their failure to advance a bill Wednesday, the last scheduled day of the legislative session, left the legislature divided over whether to consider a separate compromise that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot, expunge the criminal records of some offenders and allow for expanded medical use. Lawmakers planned to meet behind closed doors Thursday morning, said Alexander Marion, a press aide to Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris.
New York would have become just the third state to legalize the drug through a legislative vote — rather than a ballot initiative — following Vermont and Illinois. Legalization would have created a new industry and a statewide adult-use market of at least $3.1 billion, including at least $1.1 billion in sales within New York City, city Comptroller Scott Stringer said in a report backing legalization a year ago.
“Governor Cuomo said he would pass legalization in the first 100 days and he failed,” said civil rights activist Bertha Lewis, founder of The Black Institute, a non-profit policy research group. “In Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, Washington D.C., and now Illinois, marijuana is legal. If these states can do it, why can’t New York?”
New York’s black market in marijuana, particularly in New York City, has become so ubiquitous that the scent of pot is common on Manhattan streets. Yet some in law enforcement opposed legalization and raised questions about its impact on traffic safety. Interest groups bickered over who would benefit from the tax imposed on pot sales.
State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat and prime sponsor of the legalization bill, said simply decriminalizing marijuana instead of legalizing raised “real concerns by the advocates that it doesn’t go far enough to actually make a difference, but might be perceived as ‘OK, we took care of that so not a problem anymore.’”
She also blamed Cuomo for the bill’s failure, saying he’d been “very inconsistent with whether he wanted it or not, and what he wanted.”
Cuomo said he has long supported decriminalization.
“I understand the desire to end session today as planned,” Cuomo said in a statement Wednesday. “I first proposed this decriminalization measure in 2013, and again in this year’s budget. The time to act is now.”
Stringer’s estimate of a $3.1 billion pot market didn’t include daily commuters into the city or more than 65 million yearly visitors. Potential tax revenue would total at least $336 million for the city, and $436 million for the state, he said.
In Illinois, the legislature and governor enacted pot legalization without much controversy, mindful of tax revenue and licensing fees that could reduce a budget crisis that has pushed its credit rating to the lowest of any state. Vermont made it legal to grow and smoke weed for recreation use last year, even before enacting a system of regulation and taxation.
In 2018, legal marijuana sales in the U.S., including in the states that allow medical access, surged north of $10 billion, with California becoming the largest legal market. There, tax revenue of roughly $350 million was about a third of the more than $1 billion officials expected. They attributed the shortfall to a continuing black market in untaxed, less expensive weed.
Cuomo has been pushing for legalized pot since his third-term inaugural speech in January, spokesman Rich Azzopardi said.
“The governor has consistently said the best way to pass this legislation would be through the budget, but the legislature didn’t want to do it,” Azzopardi said. “We’ve been negotiating with the houses for weeks and at the end of the day, as the senator herself said, the votes weren’t there in her own house.”
Melissa Moore, New York state deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a legalization advocacy group, extended blame to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, saying they “failed to lead on an issue of critical social and economic justice.”
The governor, Moore said, balked at proposals to direct pot-sales tax revenue toward communities most harmed by discriminatory enforcement of drug laws. Heastie and Stewart-Cousins failed to consult with their Democratic members until the final weeks before the session was to close, Moore said.
In Illinois, Governor J.B. Pritzker took an active role in pushing for legalization as crucial to his strategy to fix the state’s fiscal problems, Moore said. “That kind of leadership was lacking here,” she said.
Lawmakers squabbled over whether the money would go into the state’s general treasury or be dedicated to support public education, drug treatment programs or investment in minority communities that are considered to have been most harmed by discriminatory drug enforcement. Krueger said they also balked at the law’s complexity with jurisdiction spread across several state and local agencies responsible for public health, taxes, agriculture, law enforcement and courts.
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