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Cuomo’s Smokescreen on Marijuana Reform

Steven Wishnia Jan 21

On January 8, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he would create a state medical-marijuana program by executive order. The news surprised both legislators and activists, as Cuomo had opposed even the restrictive therapeutic-cannabis bill the Assembly passed last year. For all the hoopla, however, his scheme may never supply herb to any actual sick people. It revives a 1980-vintage state program that obtained low-quality medical marijuana from the federal government — and ended after the Reagan administration cut off the supply. And while even the narrowest state medical-pot laws permit use by people with multiple sclerosis or AIDS, Cuomo’s proposal is currently limited to those with cancer or glaucoma.

For a state with a reputation for being progressive on social issues, New York lags far behind on this one. In Colorado, state-licensed pot sales to adults began on January 1, and Washington will follow this summer. Since 1996, 21 states and Washington, D.C. have enacted laws permitting at least some medical use. New York’s distinction is that it regularly leads the nation in pot-possession arrests. 

So why has it been so hard to get the laws changed here? There are three main reasons. First, New York, unlike Colorado and California, does not have ballot initiatives, so any change in the laws has to come through the notoriously dysfunctional state legislature. Second, it has not had a strong legalization movement since the 1970s, although that may be changing. Third, New York’s reputation as “progressive” is significantly overrated.

Legislators are much more cautious than voters, especially on an issue that makes them vulnerable to attack ads and gotcha memes. They also have to compromise with opponents. Eight of the first nine states to legalize medical marijuana, beginning with California in 1996, did it by initiative. Colorado and Washington’s legalization of retail sales also came by initiative, in 2012. 

The state laws enacted by legislation are all much more restrictive. In New Jersey, a committee chair got chronic pain deleted from the list of conditions qualifying for medical marijuana, and New Hampshire’s governor said she would veto a bill that let patients grow their own.

In New York, the state Senate is gerrymandered for a majority of Republicans or a coalition with real-estate-bought Democrats, so it is often the graveyard of progressive legislation. The Assembly has passed medical marijuana measures several times, but they have remained “one-house bills.”

What’s more, beyond the national problem that only a small minority of pot users are even minimally politically active on the issue, New York’s legalization movement faces distinctive local problems. It’s hard to organize across regions as disparate as Buffalo and Long Island. The state’s pot subcultures are much more fragmented than California’s, where the movement had a base in the farmers of the Emerald Triangle and among post-hippie gay activists during the AIDS epidemic. Here, there are huge economic and cultural gaps between a baby-boomer lawyer on the Upper West Side and a 19-year-old in Brownsville popped in a stop-and-frisk. In the states where medical marijuana is semi-legal, that also generates money that can be put into the cause. California dispensary owner Richard Lee put $1.5 million into the 2010 legalization initiative Proposition 19.

The legalization movement here has gained strength in the last few years, with the New York Civil Liberties Union and the state Drug Policy Alliance focusing on marijuana issues, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) sustaining a handful of chapters and groups like Community Voices Heard bringing black and Latino activists into what has been a very white movement. One might almost be grateful to mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, whose pot-bust policies were so heavy-handed and blatantly racial that they eventually galvanized opposition.

On the other hand, progressive local politicians such as City Councilmembers Melissa Mark-Viverito and Jumaane Williams, who have protested those policies, did so with the disclaimer that they weren’t endorsing legalization. Mayor Bill de Blasio has not come out for anything stronger than reducing penalties for possession “in public view” — a measure supported and then abandoned by Gov. Cuomo.

Not So Progressive

Finally, New York is not as progressive as people think it is on social issues. Although it decriminalized pot in 1977, its 1973 “Rockefeller laws” pioneered the era of draconian mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenders. In a similar vein, although it was one of the four states that legalized abortion on demand before the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, New York was the last to legalize no-fault divorce, in which couples can split up without accusing the other of adultery or abuse; it did not do so until 2010. The law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation was first introduced in 1971 — and didn’t make it through the legislature until 2002. 

In the Stonewall era, gay men and lesbians were bigger pariahs than pot-smokers, but their rights are now widely accepted. The difference, NORML founder Keith Stroup said in 2003, was that millions of them had the courage to come out. Marijuana users who come out risk arrest, unemployment and being declared unfit parents. President Obama can mock and dismiss legalization without being widely denounced as a duck-brained puritan.

Drugs are also not purely a “social issue.” In New York, they’re politically intertwined with crime, which is deeply intertwined with race. While the city didn’t escalate pot busts to more than 25,000 a year until 1998, after serious crime had fallen significantly, they have been an effective tool for harassing young, lower-class black and Latino men, who are perceived as the main sources of street crime. The more privileged feel safe. 

That was former pothead Michael Bloomberg’s rationale for hypocrisy. His attitude was essentially “I enjoyed it, but we need to keep a lid on the animals.” (Cuomo admits that he “did experiment with marijuana when [he] was a youth,” but dismisses state Sen. Liz Krueger’s legalization bill as a “nonstarter.”)

Despite all its legislative dysfunction, however, New York now has at least six senators (out of 63) who have endorsed legalization: Krueger and Brad Hoylman of Manhattan; Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx; and Martin Malavé Dilan, Velmanette Montgomery and Kevin Parker of Brooklyn. In the U.S. Senate, none have.