ALBANY — In just a few months, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s perspective on marijuana has evolved from arguing that pot is a “gateway drug” that should be banned to authorizing a state task force to evaluate whether it should be legalized.
Cuomo, in releasing his proposed $168 billion budget this week, contended New York should study the issue, with neighboring state Massachusetts poised to allow its regulated sale from shops this year. Vermont lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Jan. 4 to legalize pot possession in the Green Mountain State. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has also signaled he wants to see marijuana prohibition ended.
“It would be nice to have some facts in the middle of the debate,” said Cuomo, noting the task force would get input from State Police brass and health experts, among others.
With the Democrat-led Assembly in favor of marijuana legalization, the move allowed Cuomo to buy time on a controversial issue during an election year without putting himself in the camp of those openly advocating for legalizing pot or siding with those who want to keep its possession a crime.
“I just see too many negatives to jumping on this bandwagon,” said Clinton County Sheriff David Favro, who contended that having adjoining states embrace legalization isn’t a sufficient basis for New York to follow suit.
Favro said the potential to reap a new source of revenue from sales of recreational marijuana would run counter to years of efforts by police officers to encourage young people to refrain from using pot.
“Are we going to say we were wrong then because we can make money on it now?” he asked.
Nine states permit recreational marijuana use. New York, as the result of a law approved by Cuomo in 2014, is one of 29 states allowing doctors to prescribe medical cannabis to patients. It is viewed as one of the most tightly regulated such programs in the nation.
More than 40,000 New Yorkers are now certified to get medical marijuana.
Advocates for legalization, such as the Drug Policy Alliance, say weed is the most common illegally used substance in the nation.
There is also some support for legalization from stakeholders in the medical-marijuana industry.
“The governor deserves a lot of credit for taking a deep-dive on recreational use,” said Jeremy Unruh, general counsel for PharmaCann, one of the companies authorized to provide medical cannabis in New York.
“We are confident that when they look at job-creation numbers, tax revenue, as well as the social-justice implications, it will be clear New York should make adult use legal,” he added.
Ending the prohibition would require more than a minor edit of state laws.
A 67-page bill advanced by Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, to legalize marijuana would amend the Penal Law, Public Health Law, Alcoholic Beverage Law and Criminal Procedure Law.
Gottfried, chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, said it would be “a good thing” if Cuomo’s task force helps make marijuana legal in New York.
“I, and many other legislators, believe there is already ample evidence that allowing regulated, adult marijuana use makes sense and would help end a criminal-law policy that destroys tens of thousands of lives,” he said.
Not all of his colleagues share that view, however. Assemblyman Michael Norris, R-Lockport, said that while he supports medical cannabis, he has reservations about giving the green light to the “uninhibited use” of recreational marijuana, in part because of its impact to young adults.
“However, I do look forward to analyzing the results and input of medical and law-enforcement professionals upon the completion of the governor’s study,” Norris added.
Getting the state Senate to embrace the push for legalization appears to be a heavier lift for advocates, partly because many Republican lawmakers in New York run with the cross-endorsement of the state Conservative Party, which favors continuing the prohibition.
Michael Long, Conservative Party chairman, said Cuomo is “being hypocritical” for moving ahead with the task force after stating last year that marijuana is a gateway drug.
“Why would you want to legalize a drug that would cause addiction to New Yorkers?” asked Long, who also suggested that state officials should not be cherry-picking laws that they believe should be ignored by law enforcers.
Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek, who, like, Cuomo is a Democrat, said she welcomed the governor’s call for a task force but declined to share her own opinion on whether pot should become legal.
She said such decisions are best left to elected lawmakers, noting her job is to prosecute the offenders of the enacted laws.
“My personal opinion doesn’t much matter,” Wojtaszek said.
After threatening the existence of state-authorized medical-marijuana programs, the federal government has failed to show effective leadership in the area of marijuana regulation, said John Grebert, the former director of the state Chiefs of Police Association.
At the same time, Grebert said, states should proceed with great caution in considering dropping the ban on marijuana, warning of the potential negative impacts on highway safety and the possibility of more widespread drug abuse.
“We all know it’s out there, but why make it legal?” Grebert observed. “I think the potential risks outweigh any benefits.”
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites.