Governor Cuomo Moves to Legalize Recreational Marijuana in NY

Governor Cuomo Moves to Legalize Recreational Marijuana in NY

The proposal came in a speech in Manhattan on December 18, 2018, in which the governor outlined his agenda for the first 100 days of his third term. The speech, showed, with clarity, the governor’s leftward evolution from considering marijuana a “gateway drug,” to a self-described progressive championing recreational marijuana.

Traditionally, governors outline their priorities for the year in a State of the State address in January. But Mr. Cuomo said he wanted to lay out his plans early, in anticipation of the first legislative session in a decade in which Democrats have controlled both houses of the Legislature.

Mr. Cuomo stated during the speech that, “There are no more excuses, my friends. Now is the time to stand up and lead, and do what you’ve said you were going to do all those years.”

The marijuana idea received just a passing mention in the speech, despite the attention it has captured among policy wonks and average New Yorkers alike. Mr. Cuomo did not describe how he would use the tax revenue that legalization could generate, or offer details about how he would regulate a drug that he had previously made clear he considered dangerous.

He for years rejected allowing even medical marijuana, declaring that its dangers overshadowed its benefits. He continued to oppose it into 2013, before approving a highly limited pilot program in 2014.

After complaints from advocates, the state eased some of those restrictions in 2016. But Mr. Cuomo remained wary, telling reporters as recently as last year that he considered marijuana a “gateway drug.”

It was not until this year that Governor Cuomo warmed to the idea, saying that the “facts have changed” around the drug and acknowledging its legalization in nearby states: Massachusetts in 2016 and New Jersey now moving to do the same.  Massachusetts just opened its first recreational adult use marijuana dispensaries. 

The clearest indication of what legalization might look like in New York may be found in a report issued in July by the state Department of Health, which Mr. Cuomo had empowered to study the issue. The commission, which the governor convened in January, concluded that the benefits of taxing and regulating the drug outweighed any negative effects.

Legalization could bring in between $248 million and $677 million in new tax revenue in its first year, the report said. In addition, it could also ease the opioid crisis and mitigate racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Already, public officials and policy groups have begun clamoring for different uses of the new revenue. One popular proposal would funnel the money into New York City’s crumbling subway system. Others have said the funds should be invested in the minority communities that have been disproportionately affected by prosecution.

Some have suggested that they would not support legalization without a promise to return the profits to those communities.  But others, especially those in the recreational marijuana industry, rejoiced. Cannabis companies had given generously to Mr. Cuomo and other officials before this year’s election, with one company, MedMen, giving the governor the limit of $65,000 this year.

A Quinnipiac University poll in May showed that 63 percent of New Yorkers favored legalizing marijuana for recreational adult use.