Marijuana foes aim to thwart N.Y. legalization again

Associated Press Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, speaks at a rally for marijuana legalization at the New York State Capitol in Albany on Jan. 28.

ALBANY — With Gov. Andrew Cuomo aiming to win approval for legalized recreational marijuana in seven weeks, opponents of the proposal urged lawmakers Monday to deal with the issue outside of the state budget.

Cuomo has repeatedly said he believes the cannabis proposal will falter if it is handled independently of his $178 billion state spending blueprint.

The push for an on-time budget — the state's next fiscal year begins April 1 — is heating up amid complications relating to calls from upstate and suburban lawmakers to scale back the controversial bail laws that took effect January 1.

There are new indications some lawmakers are so adamant in favoring the restoration of judicial discretion in bail decisions they may withhold their support for the marijuana proposal.

Should a standoff continue over the bail issue, it could doom the marijuana legalization effort for another year. A drive to add New York to the column of states with legal weed ran off the tracks late in the 2019 legislative session after it was removed from budget negotiations.

One of the leaders of a coalition of anti-marijuana groups, Kyle Belokopitsky, director of the New York State Parent Teachers Association, noted in her 22 years of following budget talks proposals unrelated to state spending happen with regularity.

"Controversial issues get included in the budget each year because they can't pass on their own when they are on the outside" of the spending authorization measures, Belokopitsky said.

Also registering opposition was the New York State Association of County Health Officials. "The experiences in other states and the scientific research have proven it will generate preventable deaths and illnesses," said Sarah Ravenhall, the association's director.

One of the prime supporters of legalized pot, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, said passage now "appears very likely," but acknowledged some issues remain under negotiation. She is seeking a dedicated stream of revenue to support communities adversely impacted by enforcement of laws banning the possession and sale of marijuana.

Criminal justice studies have found that a disproportionately high tally of arrests have impacted African-American New Yorkers.

While the Cuomo proposal does not include such a dedicated fund, Peoples-Stokes said, "The governor does understand the dynamics of this."

She said it is crucial marijuana legislation recognizes what she called years of uneven enforcement.

"We're talking about multiple decades of a problem that was created," she said. "It's not going to be solved in a couple of budgets. It has to be in the statute" in order to keep the funding going after Cuomo leaves office.

But Belokopitsky and leaders of police groups and medical professionals said cannabis legalization would steer more adolescents to drug use while creating highway hazards. A recent report sponsored by the American Automobile Association found a sharp rise in Washington state in the number of fatal injuries resulting from crashes where drivers were impaired by THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

"We should be listening to the medical professionals," said Delaware County Sheriff Craig DuMond.

He and other police professionals predicted legalization will increase the black market for marijuana, with street dealers boosting the availability of cheap weed to undercut the taxes that would be imposed on state-licensed shops.

If lawmakers go along with Cuomo on cannabis, New York would become the nation's 12th state offering legal sales of recreational marijuana. Weed is also legal in Washington, D.C, and Canada.

Cuomo's proposal does not authorize the growing of marijuana plants for personal consumption, though the bill advanced by Peoples-Stokes and Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, would give allow New Yorkers to cultivate their own pot patch.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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