Marijuana Legalization Isn’t Dead Yet in New York

Marijuana Legalization Isn’t Dead Yet in New York

After weekend-long negotiations, lawmakers are cautiously optimistic they may reach a deal before the legislative session ends Wednesday.

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CreditCreditMike Segar/Reuters

Vivian WangJesse McKinley

Lawmakers in New York are mounting a renewed and frantic push to legalize marijuana before the legislative session ends on Wednesday, even as debates about revenue and political blowback that doomed an earlier attempt have threatened to derail the effort again.

Staff members from the State Senate, Assembly and governor’s office met throughout the weekend, the first time they had engaged in three-way negotiations since the previous push fell short.

One of the initial obstacles was a disagreement on how and where to allocate revenue from marijuana sales. Progressive legislators had initially sought to designate fixed percentages of marijuana revenue for reinvestment in communities that have been most harmed by the war on drugs. But Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had wanted looser language, which would have given the executive branch more control over the revenue.

Since then, lawmakers have introduced a revised bill that would grant Mr. Cuomo more say in the distribution of funds.

They are also discussing a provision that would allow localities to opt in to legalization. Previously, they had sought to include an opt-out clause, but several counties, including both on Long Island, had already declared their intention to do so.

“Do we mandate that localities must do things or do we leave the decisions to the local governments?” Mr. Cuomo said Monday in an interview on WAMC radio. “That is what we are talking through.”

At stake is a potential billion-dollar market in the nation’s fourth-largest state. But it remains unclear if the invigorated effort will be enough to overcome strenuous opposition from law enforcement officials, parent-teacher associations and lawmakers wary of alienating those constituencies.

And even among proponents, questions of who should be allowed to sell marijuana and who should receive the revenue have threatened the viability of a deal.

As uncertainty continued to surround marijuana, several other issues seemed to be gaining legislative clarity as the clock ticked toward Wednesday’s end-of-session deadline.

Supporters of e-scooters were cheering a legislative agreement to allow the swift, eco-friendly devices in city streets, though they would not be allowed in Manhattan, where there were concerns about adding to already maddening traffic. E-bikes would be allowed statewide.

And in a radio interview on Monday morning, Mr. Cuomo expressed confidence in a variety of other measures, including several he has been promoting in recent weeks. One would eliminate the so-called “gay panic” defense in criminal cases, under which defendants seek leniency by claiming that they acted under extreme emotional distress because of a victim’s sexual orientation.

Another would allow gestational surrogacy, a cause that has struggled in the State Assembly in the face of opposition from several prominent female lawmakers.

The governor also predicted success for new legal standards for sexual harassment — revoking a condition that it must be “severe and pervasive” — as well as an extension of a program to promote government contracts for women and underrepresented minority groups that expires at the end of this year.

There continued to be questions, however, about several other proposals, including one to end the use of long-term solitary confinement in jails and prisons and offer other more rehabilitative units. Mr. Cuomo said he agreed that solitary confinement needed reforms but that he was hesitant to spend more on “new prison cells.” The governor also cast doubt on a proposal to decriminalize prostitution, saying he doubted there was enough time to seriously consider such an idea.

“I don’t think people are going to do that,” he said, “on 48-hour notice.”

For proponents of marijuana legalization, the small chance of passage was a far cry from earlier this year, when a regulated adult-use market seemed more assured, after Democrats won majorities in both chambers of the State Legislature, and Mr. Cuomo backed the idea for the first time in December. But negotiations collapsed in April, in the face of a well-coordinated opposition campaign and the demise of a parallel effort in New Jersey.

Afterward, supporters in New York blamed infighting. They pointed to disagreements between Mr. Cuomo and progressive lawmakers about revenue allocation, as well as recriminations between activists and the medical marijuana companies, which the activists had sought to cut out of the new recreational market.

But over the past two months, supporters have sought to bridge those divides. Late last month, a coalition of progressive activists, medical industry officials, organized labor representatives and cannabis entrepreneurs agreed at a meeting to develop a shared strategy to counter anti-legalization groups.

The Drug Policy Alliance, a grass-roots pro-legalization group, hired Kivvit, an influential lobbying and public relations firm, for $17,500 for the month of June. The medical marijuana companies, which are working with Mercury, another lobbying firm, are planning a phone banking campaign to urge New Yorkers to call their legislators.

“It seemed simple to us. Sharing information and collectively shaping strategy is the best way for all our varying goals to be met,” said Adam Goers, the president of the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association. “It’s too important to operate in silos.”

Still, even supporters acknowledged that some issues might remain intractable. The influential Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian legislative caucus last week reaffirmed its support for the revised bill, sponsored by Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the Buffalo Democrat who serves as Assembly majority leader.

Ms. Peoples-Stokes said on Monday that she still believes that the major stumbling block is the issue of reinvesting the money in communities affected by mass incarceration. “That, for both the speaker and myself, closes the deal,” she said, referring to Carl E. Heastie, the Bronx Democrat who is the Assembly speaker. “We’ve got to have that.”

She said that Senate and Assembly staff were still discussing the deal, but that she had not heard from Mr. Cuomo. She also said it was possible the Legislature would pass a bill, and simply send it to the governor’s desk.

“It’s always a good scenario when you do have everybody on the same page; it makes life easier for everybody,” she said. But, she added, “there always is the option” of the Legislature just passing the bill, as it did last week with the rent reform package. “I think that could quite possibly be the scenario,” she said.

Ms. Peoples-Stokes was certainly not ready to concede defeat.

“There’s still conversations going on,” she said. “So I remain optimistic.”

Jesse McKinley is The Times’s Albany bureau chief. He was previously the San Francisco bureau chief, and a theater columnist and Broadway reporter for the Culture Desk. @jessemckinley

Vivian Wang is a reporter for the Metro Desk, covering New York State politics in Albany. She was raised in Chicago and graduated from Yale University. @vwang3

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