The “pressure will be on” to legalize marijuana in New York and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to offset economic losses from the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said on Thursday. And since voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a cannabis legalization referendum on Tuesday, that pressure is even more intense.
Though it’s unclear whether he was speaking prospectively about the 2021 legislative session or signaling that the policy change could be enacted in a special session before the end of 2020, the governor said, “I think this year it is ripe because the state is going to be desperate for funding” amid the health crisis. Legalization represents a potential source of revenue, he argued.
“I’ve supported it for years. The question becomes about the money—about the distribution and the power,” he said during the interview with WAMC radio. “What does it always come back down to? Money and power. Who gets the licenses and who gets the money. I think we get there this year.”
He said the policy change will be necessary “even with [Joe Biden if he’s elected president], even with a stimulus, even with everything else, we’re still going to need funding. And it’s also the right policy. I think we get there this year.”
Despite prior disagreements within the legislature about the allocation of cannabis tax dollars, he said the “pressure will be on because we need the money so badly,” effectively forcing the hands of lawmakers.
“You have such a [budget] gap now,” he said. “I think it’s going to be an easier conversation.”
Cuomo has included marijuana legalization in his last two annual budget proposals, but negotiations have consistently stalled. A top aide said last month that the administration planned to give it another try in 2021 and the governor confirmed in a separate recent interview that he felt the reform would be accomplished “soon.”
How soon is the question. Cuomo, in his latest remarks, projected that legalization would be approved “this year,” which could be a reference to a budget-based approach in the coming regular session that begins in January, or it could mean he thinks the state is so “desperate” for tax dollars that the legislature could take up the issue as early as this or next month outside of the budget.
The governor made the comments after being prompted about New Jersey voters approving a referendum to legalize cannabis during Tuesday’s election. He said putting the question of reform directly to voters “in retrospect, I think, probably turned out to be the faster way to do it.” The state still needs to pass enabling legislation, however. A top senator said a bill to do so could be introduced as early as Thursday.
New Jersey’s strong vote in favor of legalization has already had a ripple effect across the Northeast, with policymakers and advocates arguing that it should inspire surrounding states to adopt the same policy.
“If we do something, we do it on a regional basis,” he said. “New Jersey has done this, Massachusetts is already legal, Rhode Island is looking at it, New York is looking at it—so I’ll be talking with my fellow governors about what, if anything, we want to do on a regional basis and then talking with the legislature as well.”
Prior to the pandemic, Lamont, Cuomo and the governors of New Jersey and Pennsylvania met to discuss how best to implement cannabis legalization to promote public safety. Last year, they agreed to a set of principles for regulated marijuana markets.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) congratulated New Jersey for approving the legalization referendum during a briefing on Wednesday and said it’s “time to do the right thing” by enacting the policy change in New York “in a way that’s safe and that empowers communities that have often suffered from the wrong kind of laws in the past.”
“We saw it in New Jersey, now it’s time for New York state to do it,” he said. “At a point where we need resources—so we can serve people and provide such crucial services—this would be a big economic boost and bring in revenue we need. So hopefully that will soon be coming in this state as well.”
Melissa Moore, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), also congratulated New Jersey voters “who overwhelmingly approved marijuana legalization in their ballot initiative yesterday” in a press release on Wednesday.
“New Yorkers approve of legalization by a 2 to 1 margin, including a majority of Republicans, and we must push our state policymakers to be responsive to the will of New Yorkers and legalize adult use marijuana in our state in the upcoming legislative session,” she said.
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