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Is legal marijuana faltering in New York?

Zach Hirsch

The chance to include the legalization of adult recreational marijuana in the state budget is fading, now that Gov. Andrew Cuomo seems to be backing away from the proposal.

Legislative leaders have already said it might be better to create a plan for adult use of recreational cannabis outside of the time pressures of the state budget, which is due at the end of the month. There are still many unanswered questions about who would be permitted to grow marijuana, distribute it and sell it.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie says his house wants a portion of the revenue from the sales to go to a fund to help communities most adversely impacted by prohibition of the drug. He also wants to review past convictions for minor-level marijuana possession offenses and expunge the criminal records of some offenders.

“People who have been caught up in the criminal justice system have been denied housing and denied job opportunities,” Heastie said. “Mechanisms that reverse that have to be dealt with first.”

Cuomo says it now seems likely that legalizing cannabis won’t be part of the budget. But he argues that it is easier politically for what he calls a “somewhat controversial” issue to be combined with the spending plan and other policy issues as part of a larger package.

“When it’s not done in the budget, then it is, in my opinion, harder to do as a standalone bill,” said Cuomo. “Because it’s now just marijuana with a capital M and it’s a more difficult vote.”

Meanwhile, opponents of legal marijuana have been busy organizing. Groups including the state sheriffs association and the Medical Society gathered outside the Senate chambers to voice their concerns.

John Coppola, the executive director of the New York Association of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Providers, says while the rate of addiction to cannabis is lower than many other drugs, it is estimated that 7% of all adults who use marijuana will develop a substance use disorder and 16% of teenagers and young adults will do so. He says before a bill is passed to legally sell marijuana, there needs to be funding and programs for those who will be harmed by the drug.

“How are we going to address the substance disorder needs?” Coppola asked. “There is no plan in place.”

Kyle Belokopitsky, with the New York State PTA,  worries that legalization will  increase the use of the drug among children. She says many of the edible forms of cannabis sold in other states don’t seem very adult-oriented.

“In Colorado and Washington (State) their number one sellers are gummy bears and lollipops,” Belokopitsky said. “My nine-year-old likes gummy bears and lollipops. I don’t.”

The New York State Association of Counties is also asking lawmakers to slow down the process. Two of the state’s largest counties, Nassau and Suffolk on Long Island, say they will opt out of any legalization program and would ban marijuana stores.

Belokopitsky says opponents are far from certain, though that the measure is dead for now and will stay out of the budget. She says with ten days left until the deadline, anything can happen.  

“I’ve seen lots of things rise from the dead in this building,” she said.

Just before the legislature adjourned for the week, Cuomo and legislative leaders held a closed-door meeting to talk about the budget. Afterward, Heastie said that discussions on legalizing marijuana as part of the spending plan are continuing. Nothing is off the table, he said.  

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.