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Cuomo: Legal Marijuana Out Of The Budget

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
Pat Bradley
File photo: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

Governor Andrew Cuomo says legalizing recreational marijuana is not going to be part of the state budget this year. Cuomo made his comments as the budget deadline approached with no agreement on how to close a $15 billion budget gap, caused by the fallout from the coronavirus.

Cuomo was asked about the fate of the legal cannabis proposal during his daily briefing on the coronavirus.

“It’s not likely,” he said. “Too much, too little time.”

The Senate sponsor of the bill, Liz Krueger, said March 18 that she thought it was not realistic that the governor and legislature could negotiate a complicated measure in the budget  to set up a legal marijuana system in New York, with all of the distractions caused by the coronavirus.

The news disappointed advocates, including the Drug Policy Alliance. But the group’s Melissa Moore says it’s understandable.

“I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the circumstances that we would be operating within as we are in the final days of closing the budget here in New York,” said Moore, who said COVID 19 is “rightfully” demanding too much of the lawmaker’s attention.

“It makes sense,” she said.

She says her group is more focused right now on helping the people they advocate for, who have suffered from the effects of the decades long criminalization of the drug. She says some have seen their lives disrupted  by imprisonment, and  don’t always have adequate housing, health insurance, or employment.

“There’s just a lot of focus on day to day life or death scenarios,” Moore said.

Moore says she hopes lawmakers will return to the capitol later this year and legalize cannabis.

Opponents are pleased, including the national group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM. Dr. Kevin Sabet, the group’s president, says it would be “irresponsible” to legalize the drug now “at a time of an international pandemic and when New York is struggling to keep people alive.” 

“It makes no sense to legalize something that actually makes people’s lungs worse and hurts their immune system,” Sabet said.

Before COVID-19 hit, a mysterious illness believed related to vaping of black market THC products killed several hundred people across the country. Sabet says allowing the vaping of cannabis, as well as tobacco based products, needs to be reconsidered.

“Generally, marijuana has gotten a green light by society the last couple of years, thinking that it’s safe to use and is medicine,” said Sabet.

Sabet says his group supports the use of limited medical marijuana, and also does not agree with strict criminalization of the drug.

Another issue that’s been tied to the budget is changing the state’s bail reform laws, which  took effect January 1 and ended most forms of cash bail for non violent offenses. It caused a backlash among prosecutors and law enforcement, who said some repeat offenders were being released back into the community, potentially to commit more crimes.

Governor Cuomo and some State Senators back a measure that would give judges more power to hold defendants pre trial, if they present a danger to the community. The Senate version would , in exchange, get rid of all forms of cash bail, including violent offenses.

Cuomo, hours before the budget deadline, said there’s been so much discussion on the issue that it’s an easy matter to settle.

“Bail reform is something we’ve talked about until we’re blue in the face, for two years,” Cuomo said. “So bail reform we have to get done.”

Opponents of the changes, including many Assembly Democrats, say now is not the time to put more people in prisons, with the virus spreading in the jail population.

Even supporters of changing bail reform want to wait, including the New York Association of Chiefs of Police, and the New York State Sheriffs Association. They say they are too overwhelmed dealing with the COVID 19 crisis to be involved in discussions at the capitol right now, and would rather the issue be addressed later in the year. 

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