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New York puts off legalizing marijuana, for now

File Photo / WBFO News

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said legalizing recreational marijuana is not going to be part of the state budget this year. Cuomo made his comments as the budget deadline approached with no agreement on how to close a $15 billion budget gap, caused by the fallout from the coronavirus.

He was asked about the fate of the legal cannabis proposal during his daily briefing on the coronavirus. 

"It's not likely," he said. "Too much, too little time." 

The Senate sponsor of the bill, Liz Krueger, said two weeks ago that she thought it was not realistic that the governor and Legislature could negotiate a complicated measure in the budget to set up a legal marijuana system in New York, with all of the distractions caused by the coronavirus crisis. 

The news disappointed advocates, including the Drug Policy Alliance, but the group's Melissa Moore said it's understandable. 

"I don't think anyone could have foreseen the circumstances that we would be operating within as we are in the final days of closing the budget here in New York," said Moore, who added COVID-19 is "rightfully" demanding so much of the lawmakers' attention.

"Not moving to legalize cannabis through the budget process right now … it makes sense," she said. 

She said her group is more focused right now on helping the people they advocate for who have suffered from the effects of the decades-long criminalization of the drug. She said some have seen their lives disrupted by imprisonment, and don't always have adequate housing, health insurance or employment.  

"There's just a lot of focus on day-to-day, life-or-death scenarios," Moore said.  

Moore said she hopes lawmakers will return to the Capitol later this year and legalize cannabis.  

Opponents are pleased, including the national group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM.

Dr. Kevin Sabet, the group's president, said it would be "irresponsible" to legalize the drug now "at a time of an international pandemic and when New York is struggling to keep people alive." 

"It makes no sense to legalize something that actually makes people's lungs worse and hurts their immune system," Sabet said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a mysterious illness believed to be related to vaping of black-market THC products killed several hundred people across the country. Sabet said allowing the vaping of cannabis, as well as tobacco-based products, needs to be reconsidered. 

"Generally, marijuana has gotten a green light by society the last couple of years, thinking that it's safe to use and is medicine," Sabet said. 

Sabet said his group supports the use of limited medical marijuana, and also does not agree with strict criminalization of the drug. 

Another issue that's been tied to the budget is changing the state's bail reform laws, which took effect Jan. 1 and ended most forms of cash bail for nonviolent offenses. It caused a backlash among prosecutors and law enforcement, who said some repeat offenders were being released back into the community, potentially to commit more crimes.  

Cuomo and some state senators back a measure that would give judges more power to hold defendants before trial if they present a danger to the community. The Senate version would, in exchange, get rid of all forms of cash bail, including violent offenses. 

Cuomo, hours before the budget deadline, said there's been so much discussion on the issue that it could be an easy matter to settle.  

"Bail reform is something we've talked about until we're blue in the face, for two years," Cuomo said. "So bail reform we have to get done."  

Opponents of the changes, including many Assembly Democrats, say now is not the time to put more people in prisons, with the virus spreading in the jail population. 

Even supporters of changing bail reform want to wait, including the New York Association of Chiefs of Police and the New York State Sheriff's Association. They say they are too overwhelmed dealing with the COVID-19 crisis to be involved in discussions at the Capitol right now, and would rather the issue be addressed later in the year.

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.