Could 2019 Bring an End to Cannabis Prohibition in New York?

This article was first seen in print in our legislative update column.

Legal cannabis in New York State has been a hot topic politically in light of the state budget proposal back in January. The governor’s proposed Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act was introduced, and confusion remains over whether or not the Empire State could soon be known as the Hempire State. In 2017, Andrew Cuomo said: “It’s a gateway drug, and marijuana leads to other drugs.” However, in December of 2018, Cuomo flipped proclaiming, “Let’s legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana once and for all.” While supporters and politicians alike are eager for this paradigm shift in Albany, many law enforcement officials have expressed hesitation in regard to the effects of legalization.

Most of the conversation regarding legal cannabis in New York State is revolving around when and not if. Greg Wickett, the chief of police in the Town of Hamburg and current president of the Erie County Chiefs of Police Association, offered his personal belief on legalization happening in 2019: “It does sound like that’s the trend, the politicians have the mindset that they are going to do it … I would say that it is probably likely to happen this year.” Even though Chief Wickett expects legalization, he believes that this new law poses more harm than good to Erie County. Wickett expressed much concern in the area of public safety and driving under the influence. He cited a Colorado report on the effects of legalization over the course of five years, highlighting that, “The number of fatalities in which the driver tested positive for cannabinoid‐only or cannabinoid‐in‐combination increased from 55 in 2013 to 139 in 2017.” It is important to note that only roughly half of the deceased drivers were drug tested in this study. Additionally, he maintains that there is a moral side to the debate on cannabis use: “There are many comparisons to be made with alcohol use. Being impaired by anything is never a good thing. Whether you’re operating a vehicle or just being at work or in social situations. We really need to take a look at you know, what kind of a society do we want to become here?”

This is certainly an interesting question considering the political climate around the issue. While disenfranchised communities, medical patients, and those convicted of non-violent cannabis offenses demand to change now, there is still some strong opposition. Nassau, Putnam, and Suffolk counties claim that they will opt-out of legalization. Additionally, there has been pushback from various anti-legalization police and education groups.

Among the prevailing supporters of change is Majority Leader, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes. She represents Assembly District 141 which covers some of the Buffalo areas. Peoples-Stokes is a co-sponsor of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. This bill, if enacted, would allow “the growing of and use of marihuana by persons twenty-one years of age or older” among other things. Mark Boyd, her chief of staff, gave some insight on the timeframe for this legislation:

“Based upon regulatory framework … estimations look anywhere from probably a year to possibly up to two years” Looking back at the history of cannabis laws in New York State, medical marijuana was legalized in July of 2014, but patients did not start to see dispensaries until roughly eighteen months after the bill was passed. Boyd also illustrates some challenges facing legalization: “We’re just looking to make sure that the bill is strong in the sense of having the necessary social and criminal justice aspects attached to it: community reinvestment, research, education, and awareness … not only that, but it’s also going to be regulated in a way that doesn’t make it unaffordable for residents.”

Peoples-Stokes is fighting for these tenants to be present in a separate bill, but Boyd highlights that “Hopefully everything will come together by April 1st, we technically still have until June 19th to get something passed.” It turns out that legalization did not come to fruition in time for the April 1st budget deadline. On an excerpt from WAMC radio, Cuomo shared his insight: “We will get marijuana done, it’s not a question of political desire, it’s a question of the practical reality of how you put the new system in place.”

On March 27th, protesters from various cannabis advocacy groups in New York State including WNY NORML, Rochester NORML, and the Start SMART Coalition gathered in Albany. They rallied with signs in the war room, outside of the Senate chambers, and in front of the Assembly chambers. When protesters gathered outside of the Assembly chambers, Crystal Peoples-Stokes came out for some brief remarks on the issue: “It has been my pleasure to carry this legislation for the past few years, and I am more excited than ever that it might actually happen … I understand the negative impact that criminalizing this plant has had on black and brown communities.”

While Lawmakers have until June 19th to decide on adult-use cannabis, we may be more likely to see amendments to expand the existing medical program.