Albany Notebook: Marijuana legalization advocates decry Albany delay

Joe Mahoney

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo ushered in 2019 by decrying marijuana prohibition, saying it has led to numerous "needless and unjust convictions," and vowing he would be the one to drive through legalization, making that a goal he'd fulfill in the first 100 days of this year.

It hasn't happened.

The top Democrat in a statehouse where his party rules both legislative chambers, Cuomo went into the budget negotiations holding a straight flush.

Rank-and-file lawmakers were eager for an on-time budget so they could lock in the hefty pay raises awarded to them by a compensation commission.

So getting a timely budget was in the cards. Marijuana legalization, despite public opinion polls showing it is backed by more than 60 percent of voters, was not.

Interested parties at the statehouse tell me they wonder if Cuomo was ever determined to bring about legalization this year. They point to the fact that he used his political strength to drive through very complicated legislation clamping new tolls on motorists entering the central part of Manhattan. The toll proposal, known as congestion pricing, was an idea that had significant suburban opposition.

But it survived the budget talks. Marijuana did not. And it may not happen at all this year, with some proponents of the idea acknowledging that the best time to deal with something as controversial as this is in the process of hashing out a spending plan.

What the Albany sausage factory produced was notable — a historic raise for Cuomo, whose pay goes up 39 percent by 2021, with an anti-climax of rising acrimony between progressive legislative newbies and machine Democrats who march in step with party bosses.

After raising expectations on the marijuana front, and then getting clotheslined as he scampered towards the end zone, Cuomo has left county governments wondering what his next move will be. There is still time on the clock, until June 19, when the 2019 legislative session is slated to end.

But leaders of several of New York's county governments outside New York City, Nassau, Suffolk, Putnam and Rockland, have signaled they plan to opt out of a state-run legal marijuana program. Possession would be allowed statewide, but sales could only take place in the counties that opt in.

Other counties are biding their time as the post-budget dust settles.. "We are weighing our options and waiting to see where the state is on this," Keith McNall, chairman of the Niagara County Legislature, advised me. 

In Cooperstown, David Bliss, chairman of the Otsego County Board of Representatives, said the marijuana issue has yet to surface in board discussions, as legalization remains uncertain.

In Plattsburgh, Michael Zurlo, the Clinton County administrator, said there is not much his county can do until state leaders craft a plan that has traction. He said state legislation is apparently being tweaked as to whether counties or local municipalities will have the option to refuse to sanction non-medical marijuana dispensaries.

While the Clinton County board has not staked out a position, Zurlo said he personally believes that if marijuana is legalized, then the revenue stream should be shared as the current sales tax formula dictates.

That could be a tidy jackpot. Over in Northampton, Mass., about an hour east of the New York border, city officials just raked in a check of $737,000 from their local cannabis dispenser.

But opponents of cannabis commercialization are pointing to highway safety concerns and fears that legalization of a long banned substance sends the wrong message to youth, especially as marijuana potency has increased. Kevin Sabet, who heads Smart Approaches to Marijuana New York, said toxicology tests revealed the presence of marijuana in the chauffeur behind the wheel of the limousine that crashed in Schoharie County last October, including himself and 19 others.

Legalization advocates aren't giving up hope, with representatives of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws contending Cuomo is responsible for the fact the measure died on the budget vine after similar bills were debated for five years.

"The rhetoric from the Governor's office last month about this issue being rushed because we just started having these conversations simply isn't true," Mary Kruger, the head of the group's Rochester branch, wrote in a blog post this month. "These conversations have been happening and our allies are willing to negotiate with the governor, but he needs to do just that — negotiate."

Cuomo's latest statements haven't had the swagger that came with his assertions in December, when he suggested it would all be a done deal by now. "It is complicated to come up with a program that does it and protects public safety, and does economic empowerment for communities that have paid the price," he said on the eve of the budget approval.

So whether marijuana legalization happens falls into the "definite maybe" category. Meanwhile, if it does, given the experience in Canada and states that have given the green light to weed, one thing is certain: The black market is not going away.

"Only the yuppies go to the shops," advised a long-time pot supplier from a state where cannabis dispensaries flourish.

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

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