Leading New York Lawmaker “Optimistic” About Cannabis Legalization’s Chances in 2020

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New York State Senator Liz Krueger, who is also the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has long been a supporter of cannabis legalization. Alongside Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, she advocated for adult use legalization this past spring. It seemed, for a few days, that enough votes would emerge in favor of a policy that a majority of New York voters support. But two times in a row—once effort by budget and another by bill—lawmakers couldn’t agree on the thorniest details before deadlines. 

“Literally, we ran out of time,” Krueger said Tuesday night at a CannaGather event in Manhattan, where she laid out a series of factors, in addition to deadlines, that killed New York’s legalization effort, and shared what to expect for the 2020 push. 

It was New York Governor Andrew Cuomo who, according to Krueger, perhaps played the biggest role in legalization not getting across the finish line. Now, Cuomo is leading the entire northeast US toward a coordinated adult use legalization effort in 2020.Last week, in a clear sign of rising support for legalization, Cuomo led the Regional Cannabis Regulation and Vaping Summit where governors, lawmakers, and regulators from New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Colorado met in midtown Manhattan to debate—and, they hope, agree upon—cannabis policies, from legalization to vaping. (Read Cannabis Wire’s coverage.)

This past spring, Cuomo’s initial plan was to legalize cannabis for adult use through the budget, a behemoth package of bills. There, Cuomo had the most power to shove legalization through, even with some serious rough edges, like uncertainties around impaired driving policies. These issues, which also included strong and divisive debate over where revenue would be allocated, proved to be longer-term concerns.

“We actually in good faith thought we were going to get it in the budget and get it done that way,” Krueger said. Cuomo had signaled interest, so Krueger and Peoples-Stokes moved forward to three-way discussions where the staff of the governor, the assembly, and the senate hashed out the fine print. The problem arose, according to Krueger, when “the governor stepped away from the budget process. Why? I’m not totally sure. But suddenly, there were no more three-way discussions.” 

Adult use didn’t make it into the budget. Krueger thought, “well, there’s still another shot to try to move freestanding legislation.” But getting downstate and upstate New York lawmakers to agree on any bills, let alone something like legalization, is never easy. And Cuomo’s support was still critical. Krueger continued,“Nobody was going to take that vote if they believed the governor was going to veto, and it was going to be a meaningless vote.” 

For quite a while after that, “The governor did not signal his interest in coming back to the table and trying one more time.” Krueger said she and Peoples-Stokes continued to try to build momentum while receiving mixed messages from colleagues. Suddenly, three days before the deadline, the governor “came to the table,” which triggered a scrambling from lawmakers to find enough agreement and concessions to get legalization passed by bill. 

“We were literally just meeting with legislators non-stop,” Krueger said. Lawmakers, again, ran out of time as the legislative session ended in June. Ultimately, the state’s cannabis law reform extended to decriminalized penalties for most forms of possession, and expungement. 

Looking to 2020, Krueger said she’s feeling like the time is right. Still, state lawmakers will have to compromise on some areas of cannabis policy. First, some lawmakers “primarily in the areas of the state where people drive,” have expressed “real concern” over how police will determine cannabis-impaired driving, and they want a reliable test “that would stand up in a court” if law enforcement brought charges. This is an area that law and policymakers will have to “confront,” Krueger said, adding that, “certainly the governor seemed focused on that.” 

Tax revenue is also still a major sticking point. “There’s still a fight over: where does the revenue go to? What is it being used for?” Krueger said. Peoples-Stokes and Krueger feel “strongly” that much of the revenue should be reinvested in communities disproportionately harmed by drug enforcement policies, small business efforts, and also toward treatment for more serious substance use issues, and public education campaigns. 

“The disagreement we were having with the governor was not on the social equity side,” Krueger said, pointing to Cuomo wanting more control over allocation of revenue. 

“Executives think they should get all of the money and decide where it goes and they’re not really very interested in the legislature or anyone else having a say,” Krueger said. “Mayors, governors, presidents, always think they’re the executives and they know what the priority for the money ought to be.” 

Home grown cannabis looks increasingly unlikely in any cannabis bill that’s passed in New York. 

“There’s still disagreement about home grow,” Krueger said. Home grown cannabis is often cheaper than store-bought, but it presents a host of policy questions, especially in a city like New York, including: where should it be grown? What if it smells? 

“I have legislative colleagues who say, ‘I can live with anything but home grow. I cannot have it growing in the backyard and I can’t have it growing inside people’s apartments,’” Krueger said.

Vaping was a main topic of discussion at the governors’ summit, and Krueger brought up the mysterious lung illnesses and deaths linked to vaping across the country, too. While federal investigators probe the cause of these vaping-linked lung illnesses, governors and regulators in several states have banned flavorings in vapes; in the edge case of Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker issued an outright temporary ban on all vapes. Krueger herself called for a drastic and usual move. 

“I, for one, would love to just outlaw tobacco,” Krueger said. “Sorry everybody who’s in the business of selling tobacco. You’re really good at selling stuff. Find something that doesn’t kill us.” 

Krueger said that she’s been having meetings with lawmakers, and with district attorneys from all over the state, to get a better handle on legalization concerns. 

“Suddenly I’m much more optimistic that the governor might be interested in taking a stab at this yet again in the budget coming up in January,” Krueger said. 

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