During New York’s worst health crisis in a lifetime, a deadline came up for the state’s lawmakers to put forth a provision to legalize adult-use marijuana. With other, desperate concerns to address, lawmakers are passing on legalization for the second year in a row.
In the circumstances, advocates are understanding of this. “While legalizing cannabis is necessary to reduce the decades of unjust, racist targeting of communities of color in New York, our state faces a public health crisis right now and efforts to contain COVID-19 demand legislators’ full attention,” said Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance. “When the dust settles and New York has survived this pandemic, these communities that are on the frontlines of this crisis—in addition to the legacy of harmful enforcement—must be the center of our rebuilding effort.”
The new year started with high hopes that the state would finally pass a legalization bill. Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) placed it among his top priorities in his State of the State address in January, after convening a regional meeting with several other Northeast governors last fall. The past several months saw cannabis activists traveling to Albany from all over the state, demanding a form of legalization that would address decades of injustices from the War on Drugs.
Both Gov. Cuomo and State Senator Liz Krueger (D) introduced versions of a legalization bill in early 2020, setting the stage for legislative negotiations. But from the beginning, cannabis activists expected that a legalization measure would only succeed if it was included in the state budget. The deadline for the state budget passed on April 1.
The budget drafts released and amended by both chambers of the New York legislature stated that a recreational marijuana legalization measure was “intentionally omitted.” Cuomo himself admitted legalization wouldn’t be included: “I don’t believe we get there because in truth that is something that had to be talked through and worked through, and the legislature wasn’t here,” he said in a radio interview. “I was doing this COVID virus.”
Regardless of what happens with the budget, it is still technically possible that lawmakers could pass a stand-alone legalization bill before the end of the session on June 2. “If it can’t get done the right way in the budget right in the middle of overlapping public health and fiscal crises, that there is no reason it can’t get done right later,” said Sen. Krueger.
But it is highly unlikely that it will happen this year, as marijuana legalization is an incredibly contentious and complicated issue for legislators even under normal circumstances. And as bad as New York’s COVID-19 crisis is now, it’s only likely to get worse in the weeks to come. The state desperately needs more hospital beds, ventilators, safety equipment, doctors and other medical staff.
Image from WikiMedia Commons.