Legalization Soon in New York? “No Shot”

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This month could be a tipping point for cannabis legalization in New York. After lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on adult use in time for it to be included in the state budget, April 1, a spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo told Cannabis Wire to “expect conversations will pick up in earnest” in May. Well, it’s May, and so far conversations don’t seem to have coalesced any more than the last time we checked in.

Cannabis Wire co-founder Alyson Martin joined Senator Diane Savino on the FAQ podcast yesterday to ask about where legalization conversations went wrong, and what to expect from the efforts to expand the state’s medical cannabis program.

According to Senator Savino, the April 1 deadline simply didn’t provide enough time. Lawmakers needed to try to convince officials from areas like Long Island that had come out strong against legal sales, and they needed more time to come together over exactly how equity provisions should unfold. “One after the other, you had local governments saying, ‘We don’t want it in our backyard,’” Savino said. “And that just created more anxiety from members who were teetering on the fence.”

One overall question for Savino was: Did Cuomo put his political capital behind legalization in the budget negotiation process?

“I’ve worked with this man a long time now, so I know when he really wants to do something, he knows how to get down in the trenches and negotiate to a final solution. So, I didn’t see that happening here, and I’m not sure why,” Savino told me and FAQ co-hosts Harry Siegel and Fordham professor Christina Greer during an interview for the podcast (you can listen to it in full later today by going to FAQ.NYC).

“I would suggest it’s possible he knew this wasn’t going to happen, because of all the opposition that was coming from different points of view,” Savino said. “He was going to take it on the chin if it didn’t happen. And so, let the legislature take the blame. And that’s kind of the way it shook out. So, will he take another stab at it? I don’t know. Yeah, I think it’s too soon to tell.”

Where does that leave the legalization negotiation? What’s the timeline?

Legalization, as a standalone bill, Savino said—“It really has no shot. And that’s where we find ourselves now.”

She pointed out that “If those same legislators wouldn’t vote for it today as a standalone bill, the likelihood that they’d vote for it in an election year becomes even slimmer. So, I think that the long term prospects are: You’re looking at two or three years before we get to a legal adult use market, unless something changes that I can’t see.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Savino and her colleagues are giving up on legalization, however, even if it stalls over the next year or two:

“The truth is, there’s an awful lot of opposition to it, from a whole bunch of different perspectives, that it was simple enough to just let it go. And not fight the fight. But I think it’s a fight that needs to be had, and we’re going to continue working on it.”

Savino previously told Cannabis Wire that she was going to be working on the expansion of the medical cannabis program. Yesterday, Savino doubled down on that goal.

When medical cannabis was passed in 2014, Cuomo “was not really a big supporter,” Savino said. “He fought me every step of the way. And as a condition of signing of the bill once he realized that I had the votes, and I was going to bring it to the Senate floor, he forced in some compromise on it,” Savino told me and FAQ. This narrowed the program’s number of license holders at first to just five, each able to open four storefronts. “In a state with 19 million people, it was just so ridiculous. But you know sometimes you have to compromise to get the legislation done,” Savino said.

So among the many changes that Savino is eyeing for the medical cannabis program is increasing the number of dispensaries: The state, she noted, has just under 100,000 patients.

“So we need to double the number of dispensaries minimally. We need to add more registered organizations. We need to eliminate conditions as a requirement and leave that up to doctors and patients. We need to lift the restriction on smoking,” she said, referring to the ban on smokable medical cannabis products in the state.

When asked if patients can soon expect to be able to grow their own medical cannabis, Savino said “I doubt that.” And while there was “almost a possibility” for patients to do so in Cuomo’s legalization plan, Savino said she’s “not sure that will survive the expanded bill.”

“The truth is, if you’re going to have a legal, regulated market, it’s hard to manage home grow. I don’t know how you really do that,” Savino said. “And every state that has it, has said to us, ‘Don’t do it.’”

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