New York Lawmakers, Advocates Make Last-Ditch Cannabis Legalization Push

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With only hours left in New York’s legislative session, dozens of cannabis advocates surrounded Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York City office to call on the governor and lawmakers to legalize cannabis for adult use and to push for equity in the new industry.

Specifically, dozens of advocates want Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to pass the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act before the state’s session ends on Wednesday. Cuomo tried and failed to pass legalization through the state’s budget. Now, with votes in the Senate still falling short, legalization efforts could slip through lawmakers’ fingers for 2019, and possibly longer.

Where do legalization negotiations stand?

“There were three-way negotiations last night,” a Cuomo administration source told Cannabis Wire Sunday. “They were very productive but there’s been no agreement, yet. Talks have been continuing today.”

State Sen. Diane Savino, who represents parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island, told Cannabis Wire, “Talks are ongoing. It is very precarious, though,” adding “The objections from members are varied, and for every one we satisfy, another objects.”

While lawmakers are trying to agree on how to legalize cannabis in New York, state voters are in favor of the effort. A recent Siena College poll found 55% support, up “slightly” from the 52% supporting legalization during a similar April poll. In the time that New York lawmakers have considered legalizing, Illinois lawmakers introduced and passed a bill with robust equity provisions that will legalize and regulate cannabis sales for adults. And now, time is running out for New York.

It is against this backdrop of a very tight legislative session deadline that advocates took to Cuomo’s New York City office to try to persuade him and legislative leaders.

“We are demanding, as we come down to the wire,” Imani Dawson, a cannabis consultant, said at the advocates’ press conference, that legalization needs to get across the finish line with strong equity provisions. “We built this. There would be no cannabis culture or communities without black and brown lives,” she said.

Several speakers reiterated that black and brown people refuse to get the “crumbs” of the booming cannabis industry, saying that the people disproportionately affected by cannabis enforcement need to be represented in the industry, too.

The crowd intermittently chanted, “What do we want? Marijuana Justice. And when do we want it? Now,” and also “Hold the line,” encouraging lawmakers to stand firm on equity.

Troy Smith, Deputy Director of Empire NORML, reiterated while standing outside Cuomo’s office that New York advocates and lawmakers have been working on legalization for years.

“Since 2013, advocates, drug policy experts, have been drafting and advocating for this piece of legislation. This is nothing new. We have been asking for marijuana justice, equity, and home grow since day one,” Smith said. “We want Gov. Cuomo to pass this fucking bill! I’m sorry. This is a tense time.”

Jawanza James Williams, director of organizing for VOCAL NY, said that New Yorkers with cannabis-related records are still dealing with employment issues, and “dealing with the stigmas of marijuana prohibition.” Among other provisions, the bill could expunge the records of thousands of New Yorks who have been convicted of a low-level cannabis charge.

“It’s always been used as a tool of suppression for communities of color,” he said, adding,“In New York, we are at a precipice, a moment in time that cannot be overlooked.” .

Anthony Posada, a supervising attorney with The Legal Aid Society, spoke about nearly missing the opportunity to go to college because he had an open criminal case related to cannabis. He made it to college, but it was a close call that highlighted how lives have been upended by cannabis enforcement, he said.

“These are just the ways that we need to clear that past and start on a new slate,” Posada said. “We have been hurt and we want justice.”

Kassandra Frederique, New York director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said that legalization advocates focused on equity are “clear” about their “demands.”

“All of the collateral consequences associated with marijuana prohibition need to be gone. We need our housing protected, we need our families together, we need to be able to keep our jobs,” Frederique said. “We also know that New York was the marijuana arrest capital of this country. We arrested more people than anyone else. And that ain’t right,” Frederique said.

Opponents, Frederique said, will say ‘don’t legalize’ in order to protect children.

“Who’s kids are you talking about?” she said. “Statewide, young people have been criminalized,” she said, referencing young black men that are more likely than white consumers to face cannabis arrests. “You must stop using young people as a shield for racism.”

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