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The Decrim Alternative: New York Compromises on Marijuana Legalization

New York State Capitol Building
Photo and collage of New York State Capitol Building in Albany by Freedom Leaf

This article was originally posted on June 17. It has been updated several times.

Months of attempting to line up enough support for marijuana legalization in New York’s state legislature came to a thudding halt on June 19. However, a revision of the state’s decriminalization law was passed the next day.

The lead sponsor of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), Sen. Liz Krueger issued the following statement on June 19:

«It is clear that MRTA is not going to pass in this session. This is not the end of the road, it is only a delay. Unfortunately, that delay means countless more New Yorkers will have their lives upended unnecessary and racially disparate enforcement measures before we inevitable legalize.

«Through months of negotiation and conversation with the Governor’s office and my legislative colleagues, we made great strides to improve the bill and bring more people on board. We came very close to crossing the finish line, but we ran out of time.

«I will continue to push for a tax-and-regulate adult-use program with all the right safeguards in place, one that centers on restorative justice and reinvestment in the communities most harmed by decades of failed prohibition policies.

«We will build on the success of other states who have chosen to legalize, including many of our neighbors. I have no doubt that prohibition is an outdated and irrational policy, and its days are numbered.»

With a new majority of Democrats in the Senate, it appeared that legalization had a solid chance of passing in this session. But only 30 out of 39 supported MRTA and several of those had reservations as the deadline approached.

The Decrim Alternative

At the 11th hour, on June 20, the legislature agreed to amend the state’s 1977 decriminalization law, increasing the possession limit to two ounces (from 25 grams), lowered the fine to $50, expunging records for low-level possession convictions and closing the «in public view» loophole that allowed for arrests for smoking in public. All 39 Democratic Senators supported this bill.

Gov. Cuomo hailed the decision, stating: «The decriminalization is also historic. Because one of the real crimes, pardon the expression, the social crimes of marijuana was that it victimized black and brown generations with convictions that then hurt them for the rest of their lives.»

Sen. Krueger added: «Hopefully, now that we have dipped our toes into reforming our outdated prohibition policies, we will soon be able to find the courage to dive into the full legalization that is supported by a majority of voters in every region of the state,»

Start SMART took a stand against the compromise, saying: «1. People will still be arrested for marijuana with persistent racial disparity. 2. Unregulated market remains intact, including easy access for youth. 3. Doesn’t address immigration, housing or unemployment consequences. 4. Is not an expungement bill.»

A Failure of Leadership

For the last few weeks, supporters had been pushing back against the perception that the legalization bill wouldn’t pass, in large part due to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s reluctance to help make it happen. He lost interest after it wasn’t included in the state budget at the end of March.

VOCAL-NY places the blame squarely on Albany’s Democratic leadership. «Money and power is what killed the marijuana justice campaign,» co-director Jeremy Saunders contends. «The governor easily could’ve gotten this done. But when black legislators demanded reinvestment back into their communities, he killed it. Racist arrests will continue and people with convictions will keep suffering all because Cuomo and leaders like (Assembly leader Carl) Heastie and (Senate leader Andrea) Stewart-Cousins refusing to challenge his power.»

On June 5, the Democrat & Chronicle identified which Senators were supporting MRTA, weren’t and were leaning either pro or con.

In favor: Bailey, Biaggi, Carlucci, Comrie, Gianaris, Gounardes, Hoylman, Jackson, Kennedy, Krueger, Liu, May, Montgomery, Myrie, Parker, Ramos, Rivera, Salazar, Sanders, Savino, Sepulveda, Serrano, Stewart-Cousins, Thomas

Against: Brooks, Kaplan, Persaud, Martinez

Leaning in favor: Addabbo, Benjamin, Breslin, Kavanagh, Metzger, Skoufis

Leaning against: Gaughran, Harckham, Kaminsky, Mayer

Undecided: Stavisky

With 63 members, 32 Senators need to vote in favor for a bill in order for it to pass. Counting those in favor and leaning in favor, there were 30 votes as of June 17. The Senate is comprised of 39 Democrats, 22 Republicans and two unaffiliated. That means nine Democrats did not support MARTA. The State Assembly was in favor of the bill.

Editorial Support from the Daily News

On June 17, one of the state’s largest newspapers, the Daily News, reiterated its support for legalization, which would create an equitable commercial market, earmark a expected $300 windfall in tax revenues for treatment programs and education, expunge possession convictions and allow for limited home growing.

«After fits and starts, as the session draws to a close, the Assembly and Senate have a chance to make New York only the second state to legalize use of the drug through the legislative process,» the editorial reads. «We urge all sides to get it done, because the bill under consideration makes a series of responsible choices about how to structure the legal cannabis market.»

Actually, New York would’ve been the the third state to pass legislative legalization – Vermont did in 2018 (but without a commercial market) and just two weeks ago Illinois became the second – and the 12th overall in the country.

In March, New Jersey ran into a similar roadblock when its Democratic leadership couldn’t muster enough support for legalization legislation.


This Week, We Updated: Northeast 2019 Legalization Notebook: Wait ‘Til Next Year

In April, We Asked: Will Legalization Happen in the Empire State?

Last May, We Wrote: How Massachusetts Became a Leader in Regulating Marijuana