Last-ditch bid for New York cannabis legalization in 2019

Posted on May 29th, 2019 by Global Ganja Report and tagged , , , , , , , .

New YorkWith the end of the legislative session in Albany closing in, odds for legalizing cannabis in New York state this year are fast diminishing. Now a new bill has been introduced, to reconcile rival versions pushed by the Assembly and Gov. Cuomo. It has won support from advocates—but, with the clock ticking, Cuomo equivocates on whether he will support it.

After initial high hopes for legal cannabis in New York state in 2019, progress in the Albany statehouse was paralyzed when Gov. Andrew Cuomo undercut the pending measure with his more restrictive one, appended to the state budget. There has been no progress since the budget was approved at the end of March—without Cuomo's measure. Now, just weeks from the end of current legislative session, a compromise bill has been introduced in a bid to break the logjam.

The new bill—an amended version of the measure drafted by lawmakers, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act  (MRTA)—was introduced May 24 by Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat. The new version, now slugged Senate Bill S1527, is clearly crafted to appease Cuomo while still keeping support from lawmakers and advocates.

One key issue in the Albany stalemate has been how much control the governor as opposed to the state Senate will have in overseeing legal cannabis. Here, Krueger's bill gives Cuomo what he has been demanding. Her legislation would create a governor-appointed Office of Cannabis Management, under the State Liquor Authority.

But this is balanced by provisions demanded by advocates and opposed by Cuomo—so it will still be a challenge for Krueger to get her amended MRTA approved by the end of session on June 19.

Compromise bill wins activist support
On the issue expungement of convictions, Krueger's bill sides with the activists. While Cuomo's version would have merely sealed the records of those who were convicted of quantities now to be legalized (meaning they could, theoretically, be one day unsealed and come back to haunt the convicts), Krueger's version would expunge them—meaning the records would actually be wiped. That's the policy favored by both Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes—but opposed by Cuomo. 

Krueger's bill would also raise the tax on cultivators to $1 per gram—from 62 cents in the original MRTA. It would commit to spending $3 million over three years on training police officers to spot motorists under the influence of cannabis (deemed by many activists a dubious proposition). Perhaps most significantly, the quantity that can be legally possessed would drop to three ounces, down from the previous version's two pounds. It would keep the age for adult use at 21.

Despite these compromises, activists are lining up to support Krueger's bill. One community group that had fought for the MRTA, Bronx Defenderstweeted in support of the new version: "Marijuana prohibition is often used as the pretext to feed black and brown people into President Trump’s deportation machine. We join fellow NYC defenders in calling for the state to pass the revised Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act."

Cuomo still prevaricating
Cuomo, however, basically punted when queried for his position on the compromise bill in a May 28 interview on WNYC Radio. He would not discuss the actual provisions of the legislation, saying: "The issue isn't going to be on the merits, it's on the politics.... The senators say on the record that they don't have the votes to pass it.... And I think that's the problem here—the political reality that you don't have the votes in the Senate." Seeming to speak more generally of legalization, he added: "I support it, I proposed it. But we're getting down to the final three weeks or so, and they're still saying they don't have the votes."

This merely raises the question of whether his support for the new measure might swing enough recalcitrant senators. But in attempting to explain their recalcitrance on legalization, Cuomo committed a howler: "The opposition Senate position is there is no state that has passed it without a referendum. It's never been done just by the legislature... So that's what the senators who oppose it say, they think it's an overreach by the legislature."

This is, of course, not so. Last year, Vermont became the first state in the Union to legalize by an act of the legislature rather than by popular vote. So, New York doing so would not be without precedent. Unfortunately, WNYC host Brian Lehrer did not call Cuomo out on his error.

Conservative counties demand opt-out
Another question to arouse controversy is the demand by several more conservative counties around the state that they be allowed to opt out of allowing cannabis businesses—or even personal consumption—within their borders. Six counties have already indicated they would not allow marijuana sales locally: Nassau and Suffolk in the Long Island suburbs, Rockland, Putnam and Columbia in the Hudson Valley, and Chemung in the Southern Tier. Cattaraugus in Western New York and Oneida in the Mohawk Valley also say they are likely to oppose local sales.

Cuomo's measure included a county opt-out provision, but Krueger's does not. She noted that giving counties this power could override the autonomy of municipalities within those counties. She especially mentioned Buffalo, in Erie County, which has big plans for a legal cannabis industry. "There might be individual towns in upstate New York who don’t want it, but clearly the city of Buffalo will want it," Krueger told reporters last month. "So you wouldn’t want to put it at the county level. You’d want to put it at the municipal level."

Despite the recalcitrance and obstacles, Krueger sounds determined. Contacted by Cannabis Now for a comment, the senator had this to say: "The amendments we’ve included in the new MRTA bill reflect the ideas and concerns the came up through the budget process. As a result of these amendments we have both a stronger bill, and one that is more likely to gain broader support. There is still time left in the session to see this bill pass, and see adult-use cannabis legalized with a strong commitment to restorative justice for the communities hit hardest by the war on drugs."

New medical marijuana bill also introduced 
Meanwhile, a less ambitious bid to at least expand New York's very restrictive medical marijuana program has also been launched. A bill introduced this month by Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and Sen. Diane Savino, both downstate Democrats, would incorporate some provisions concerning medicinal use that had been in Cuomo's legalization measure.

The bill would allow health care providers to recommend cannabis for patients, increase the number of dispensaries statewide, and eliminate patient registration fees, Critically, it would also eliminate the ban on sale or use of herbaceous cannabis—that is, actual smokable marijuana bud.

"One of the things that's been abundantly clear from the very beginning is that this was a narrow program that only served a small number of patients," Savino told the Albany Times-Union. "We saw some improvements over the years, but now we're trying to really close those remaining gaps."

New York legalized "medical marijuana" (although not actual herbaceous marijuana, even for medical purposes) in 2014, but the program wasn't launched until January 2016. The state Department of Health has now certified 100,283 patients for the program—a not very impressive number. Florida, by comparison, has nearly approved three times as many patients (294,700) in half the time. (The Florida program was only instated in 2017.) The New York program allows only 40 dispensaries statewide, with only 35 currently operational. Eligibility is limited to 13 medical conditions, and patients can only access 30 days' supply at a time—a burdensome restriction for residents in more remote areas of the state.

Under the new bill, private physicians could make a determination on whether a patient could benefit from cannabis, without being restricted to the listed conditions. Anyone authorized to prescribe a controlled substance, including a dentist or podiatrist, could recommend patients for the program. "It would basically be between you and your doctor, as it should," Savino told the Times-Union.

With time running out, many medical users would doubtless be happy to take what they can get in Savino's bill. But Krueger and the activists supporting her effort are still holding out for a general legalization in New York state.

Cross-post to Cannabis Now.

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