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NY Advocates Vow To Fight To Legalize Marijuana In 2020

New York State Capitol
Karen DeWitt

Advocates of legalizing adult recreational marijuana say they plan to spend the next six months convincing state lawmakers that allowing the drug to be sold and used in New York, after a measure failed in the final days of the session. 

The bill was dropped when it became evident that the Democratic-led state Senate just did not have the votes to pass legalization of marijuana. The legislature instead approved a bill to further decriminalize the drug. Possession of up to two ounces of cannabis will now be considered a violation and will be subject to a $200 fine, possession of one ounce or less would result in a $50 fine.  

Kassandra Frederique, with Drug Policy Alliance, says it’s a poor substitute for legalization of the drug.  

“It’s disappointing,” Frederique said.  

The Drug Policy Alliance says the decriminalization law won’t do anything to fix racial disparities in marijuana arrests. Formerly incarcerated people will still face parole and probation violations for possession of cannabis. Anyone arrested with more than two ounces of marijuana can still face being separated from their children, or, if they are an immigrant, face possible deportation.  

"They had the ability and the tools to move it forward and I think while there were some concerns around driving and young people, those concerns were met," Frederique said. 

Frederique says the final versions of the bill addressed many of the concerns of opponents, and included funding for the hiring of drug recognition experts, which are law enforcement officers specially trained in recognizing the effects of anyone who is driving while impaired from the use of marijuana. She says the bill also looked into buying and using special breathalyzers that could determine whether a driver had used cannabis. 

Frederique says while six Long Island Senate Democrats were not willing to vote for the measure, she says there were also Democratic Senators from New York City and Westchester who were also on the fence.

Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, who says it was a ‘mistake” not to legalize marijuana, says lawmakers would have been better off including the measure in the state budget, where they had the political cover of the gigantic state spending plan, instead of waiting until later in the session to tackle the issue. 

“I'm not going to say 'I told you so,'” said Cuomo. “But, I'm going to say everything but.”

The governor did not step in to try to change any minds in the Senate, even though the bill’s sponsor Senator Liz Kruger, asked him to do so.  

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, on a tour of New York’s North Country June 25, says the Assembly’s own internal polling showed that legalization was supported by state residents in the majority of lawmakers districts, including those upstate.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t work out," Heastie said in Plattsburgh.    

Frederique, with the Drug Policy alliance, says her group blames Cuomo, Heastie and Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, for not doing more in the final weeks of the session to pass the bill. 

“All three are to blame,” she said. “But we also know that we have a governor, if he wants something to happen he makes it happen.”  

She says advocates will continue to work during the off session, between now and January, to gain support so that the bill can pass in 2020. 

“The criminalization of people does not take a six-month recess,” Frederique said. 

Opponents say they will be working just as hard to make sure that New York does not legalize the drug.

In addition to decriminalizing smaller amounts of marijuana, the Senate and Assembly passed a measure to regulate the growing hemp industry in New York, as well as the sale of CBD products. But Governor Cuomo has not committed to signing it into law, saying he needs to review the legislation first.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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