Marijuana & Covid-19 in New York

Legalizing Marijuana in NY

New York looked poised to legalize marijuana in 2020. Then COVID struck. What’s next?

This is part of a Syracuse University student-driven reporting project through the NewsHouse website that is being published in USA TODAY Network. It takes a deep look at marijuana issues in New York as the state’s drug laws remain in flux.

Count legal marijuana in New York among the victims of COVID-19, along with the hundreds of millions in tax dollars and thousands of jobs legalization might have generated.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on the last day of March that the state’s spring legislative session was “effectively over” after several state lawmakers tested positive for the coronavirus.

They came back in June to address COVID-related issues, but didn’t address other outstanding issues.

Among the unfinished items Cuomo said would have to wait until next year was the legalization of marijuana for adult recreational use. Of the eight other states that were poised to legalize pot this year, only three appeared on track for legal weed in 2020.

Cuomo’s pronouncement of legalization’s demise was a turn of events given that, just a few weeks earlier, New York appeared all but certain to legalize marijuana as a way of raising revenue, lowering incarceration rates and getting a piece of a rapidly growing business sector.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Feb. 20, 2020, that he will visit states that have legalized marijuana to see what they are doing right and wrong.

Cuomo himself vowed to make legalization a priority during his State of the State address in January.

And although some opposition still remains in the state and a similar effort failed in 2019, people across New York expressed support for Cuomo’s plan.

In Januar,y, a Siena College survey of New York registered voters found that 58% supported legalization.

Meanwhile a less-scientific News House poll of more than 250 New York college students found that more than 91% favored legalization.

The NewsHouse also reached out to New York state lawmakers in March.

Of the 20 who responded, five were against legalization, one undecided and 14 were in favo, 

“It makes no sense to me that cannabis & alcohol are treated differently under the law when cannabis poses less health risks than alcohol, is less addictive and there is no empirical evidence suggesting that marijuana is a ‘gateway drug’ to other types of drug use,” said state Sen. Jen Metzger, D-Rosendale, Ulster County.

How COVID-19 derailed legal marijuana in NY

Protesters urging legislators to pass Marijuana legislation lay on the floor outside the Assembly Chamber doors at the state Capitol Wednesday, June 19, 2019, in Albany, N.Y.

With so much support, what went wrong? The culprit appears to be the same thing upending life everywhere – the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Sen. Luis Sepúlveda, D-Bronx, has been a strident supporter of legalization. Yet he acknowledged that COVID-19 made a proper policy discussion about legalization impossible for now.

Eventually, he thinks marijuana will be legal for adult recreational use in New York. The corona virus may have slowed that effort, but it has also made it more certain than ever, he said.

“Ultimately, when the storm settles, we are going to have to deal with it one way or another,” Sepúlveda said.

“We are going to pass some form of legalization, and you know what, when you consider the incredible deficits that we are going to have as a result of corona, all revenue streams are going to have to be considered … including gambling, online gambling and things of that nature,” he added.

What college students say about NY’s legal weed odds

New York Harvest Festival and Freedom Fair organizer Rob Robinson is a CNY marijuana legalization activist interested in social justice and environmental reform.

Syracuse University policy studies freshman Lexi Whitcomb worries the opposite might be true. 

“It has been seen as an evil,” the Connecticut native said of marijuana. “And I know a lot of lawmakers are older. So if they have that traditional view about it, they might be still thinking about that and the effects of it being negative as a drug.” 

Whitcomb supports legalization and agrees with Sepúlveda that the economy will need a boost after COVID, as does freshman Allison Boschetti of New Jersey. Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.

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“Right now, the coronavirus pandemic is taking a huge toll on our economy, and the legalization of marijuana could help to build up our economy again,” said Boschetti, who studies public relations.

She added that it’s “foolish to delay this when legalization will inevitably happen.”

But more than economics, Boschetti supports legalization of Marijuana as a social justice issue, citing the toll the war on drugs has taken on urban and minority communities — an argument made by many lawmakers in support of the law.

Economics senior Luis Solano supports legalization but said it was a smart decision to delay in the light of the COVID outbreak so the state could focus on stopping the virus.

In his home state of California, Solano said having weed legal has been a benefit. 

“People are definitely less on edge about buying marijuana,” he said. He added that marijuana is “one less thing for law enforcement to worry about,” although he said regulation of driving under the influence is a problem. 

Assemblyman David Weprin, D-Queens, spoke at a rally in January 2020 at the state Capitol on the need to make sure revenue from marijuana sales goes back into communities of color.

New Yorker Dashawn Austin, a marketing and advertising student, said he supports legalization and is understanding of the delay. “I just don’t want it to slip through the cracks,” he added. 

But Austin thought legalization might affect campus culture, hoping that university police would worry about it less.

“I don’t think that marijuana should still be illegal,” said Haley Francois, a first-year accounting from Scotia, New York.

“So if a politician thought it should stay illegal, I wouldn’t vote for them.”

Cuomo Moves to Legalize Recreational Marijuana in New York Within Months

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York outlined his 2019 agenda, which included a push to legalize recreational marijuana and a call to address injustices that have “for too long targeted the African-American and minority communities.”

Credit – Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

By Vivian Wang -Dec. 17, 2018

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that he would push to legalize recreational marijuana next year, a move that could generate more than $1.7 billion in sales annually and put New York in line with several neighboring states.

The highly anticipated proposal came in a speech in Manhattan on Monday, in which the governor outlined his agenda for the first 100 days of his third term. Mr. Cuomo framed the speech as a reflection on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt — the former president who was once a New York governor himself — would do today, mixing sweeping rhetoric about American ideals with grim warnings about the Trump administration.

The speech, which seemed delivered with a national audience in mind, could prolong slow-burning speculation about Mr. Cuomo’s presidential ambitions. It also showed, in striking detail, the governor’s leftward evolution in his eight years in office, from a business-friendly centrist who considered marijuana a “gateway drug,” to a self-described progressive championing recreational marijuana, taxes on the rich and a ban on corporate political donations.

“The fact is we have had two criminal justice systems: one for the wealthy and the well off, and one for everyone else,” Mr. Cuomo said before introducing the cannabis proposal, describing the injustice that had “for too long targeted the African-American and minority communities.

“Let’s legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana once and for all,” he added.

Ten other states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana, spending the new tax revenue on a range of initiatives, including schools and transportation.

The idea is expected to win support in Albany, where Democrats captured the State Senate in November. Members of the Assembly, which is dominated by New York City Democrats, have supported such a measure as well.

After November, that excuse vanishes. Mr. Cuomo said so, too: “There are no more excuses, my friends. Now is the time to stand up and lead, and do what you’ve said you were going to do all those years.”

Compared to the other proposals, the marijuana idea received just a passing mention, despite the attention it has captured among policy wonks and average New Yorkers alike. Mr. Cuomo did not describe how he would use the tax revenue that legalization could generate, or offer details about how he would regulate a drug that he had previously made clear he considered dangerous.

He for years rejected allowing even medical marijuana, declaring that its dangers overshadowed its benefits. He continued to oppose it into 2013, before approving a highly limited pilot program in 2014.

After complaints from advocates, the state eased some of those restrictions in 2016. But Mr. Cuomo remained wary, telling reporters as recently as last year that he considered marijuana a “gateway drug.”

It was not until this year that Mr. Cuomo warmed to the idea, saying that the “facts have changed” around the drug and acknowledging its legalization in nearby states: Massachusetts in 2016 and New Jersey now moving to do the same. The governor’s primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon, made legalization a central plank of her campaign.

The clearest indication of what legalization might look like in New York may be found in a report issued in July by the state Department of Health, which Mr. Cuomo had empowered to study the issue. The commission, which the governor convened in January, concluded that the benefits of taxing and regulating the drug outweighed any negative effects.

Legalization could bring in between $248 million and $677 million in new tax revenue in its first year, the report said. In addition, it could also ease the opioid crisis and mitigate racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

A Quinnipiac University poll in May showed that 63 percent of New Yorker’s favored legalizing marijuana.

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