After besting Democratic primary challengers more progressive on cannabis than he, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo seemed sure that he could legalize marijuana when voters re-elected him last year. In early January, he seemed sure that he could legalize adult cannabis use in the first 100 days of his third term. Now, however, Gov. Cuomo says he “isn’t sure” if marijuana legalization is on the table this year. And after Monday’s announcement to that effect, New Yorkers aren’t sure if they’ll have to wait until 2020 for legal weed.
NY Gov. Cuomo Walks Back Ambitious Plan to Legalize Marijuana in 100 Days
Even a cursory look at Andrew Cuomo’s record as New York Governor will reveal that he has been anything but a champion of progressive drug policy. As recently as 2017, Cuomo was still reacting to calls for legalization with anti-marijuana talking points and gateway theory. But the 2018 midterm elections changed the calculus. Facing more progressive challengers, and holding a Health Department report recommending adult-use legalization and full, retroactive decriminalization, Cuomo had to pivot his stance.
So when Democrats took control of Albany in 2019, Gov. Cuomo took action. He called on lawmakers to include a framework for legalizing, taxing and regulating cannabis in the 2019 state budget proposal. With a deadline of March 31, Cuomo gave lawmakers just 100 days to draft the bill. This method of fast-tracking legislation by embedding it in larger bills, like spending proposals, is a common tactic with controversial bills. But the strategy seems to have backfired—or at least, misfired. Even Democratic lawmakers who support legalization say the 100-day timeline moved too fast.
Now, Gov. Cuomo is walking back that ambitious 100-day agenda. 100 days was not enough time for lawmakers. As a result, Cuomo says he “isn’t sure” if a legal weed bill will be included in this year’s budget.
Democratic Lawmakers Weren’t Ready to Fast-Track Legal Weed
Gov. Cuomo is sure that at some point in the future, New York lawmakers will be able to reach a consensus on adult-use marijuana. But he doesn’t believe that time will be in the next two or three weeks. Gov. Cuomo said there is still a “wide divide” on the issue of legalization, despite Democrats holding a majority in the Senate. And that divide likely has more to do with the details of how to implement legalization than with the question of legalization itself.
Indeed, Gov. Cuomo’s January announcement seemed to catch many Democratic lawmakers off guard. The governor called for a vote on legal weed so quickly, that Democrats didn’t have a clear sense of what a legal, taxed and regulated adult use program might look like. And they didn’t have a vision. What would limits be? Where and who would be allowed to sell it? What kinds of businesses would be permitted and where? How would the state redress the harms of criminalization and prohibition? For Democrats, the big questions still needed answering, despite a comprehensive 2018 NY Health Department study issuing several recommendations for implementing adult use.
Democratic lawmakers’ uncertainty, and the party’s characteristically wonkish approach to “getting it right,” gave legislators opposed to or not fully on board with legalization a foothold to challenge it. “We cannot let such a big change be jammed through the legislative process without proper review and consideration,” Republican Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh said in a statement. And now, with Cuomo unsure a proposal will be ready by the budget bill’s March 31 deadline, it appears there will be no fast-tracking of legal weed.
How Long Will New Yorkers Have to Wait for Legalized Cannabis?
Lawmakers will still have a chance to make good on the Governor’s plan this year. They have until the end of the summer legislative session to introduce legalization as a standalone bill. If that fails, New Yorkers will have to wait and hope legalization will make it into 2020’s budget bill.