New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Declares Full Legalization Is a Priority for 2019
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Governor Andrew Cuomo surprised nobody by declaring Monday that he will push the state's Legislature, both houses of which are controlled by Democrats for the first time in many years, to legalize marijuana for adult use in 2019.
The governor, speaking in Manhattan to outline his agenda for the first 100 days of his third term, cast legalizing marijuana in social justice terms, declaring "The fact is we have had two criminal justice systems: one for the wealthy and the well off, and one for everyone else.”
The announcement has been anticipated for months and completes a change of mind about marijuana by Cuomo that seemed to begin when he was challenged for the Democrat gubernatorial nomination by actor Cynthia Nixon, who was unabashedly in favor of legalization. Cuomo easily defeated Nixon for nomination to a third term (which he won just as easily) but has moved steadily since the primary election toward legalization. He ordered the state Department of Health to research the implications of legalizing recreational marijuana for adults. The department's report declared prohibition has failed and that legalization would relieve gross racial disparities in arrest rates for marijuana possession and is likely to help lessen the state's opioid addiction crisis.
Cuomo, at least up until as recently last year, had said marijuana is "a gateway drug" but the Health Department report found numerous studies that correlated access to legal marijuana, whether recreational or medical, with declines in opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths. "Marijuana is an effective treatment for pain, greatly reduces the chance of dependence, and eliminates the risk of fatal overdose compared to most opioid-based medications,'' the report declared.
“Governor Cuomo’s shift from viewing cannabis as a gateway drug to proposing legalization of cannabis appears to indicate that efforts to educate about cannabis are working," said Charles Finnie, chief strategy officer for MariMed. "We applaud Governor Cuomo’s recognition of what New York voters clearly want: legal cannabis.”
Legalization is broadly popular in New York, with a recent poll finding residents favored by two-to-one ending prohibition and creating a regulated market.
If legalization comes to fruition an immense market will open. A report issued earlier this year by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer estimated the legal marijuana market in New York state at $3.1 billion annually, with $1.1 billion in the City of New York. The report estimated annual tax revenues at $436 million for the state, $336 million for New York City and $570 million for all other local jurisdictions in the state.
There is clear momentum toward legalization by Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states. Legalization in New Jersey has stalled over questions of how much to tax and how to regulate a legal industry but there is little opposition to legalization in principle. Massachusetts, which legalized recreational adult use sales two years ago, just recently opened two dispensaries. Connecticut, like New Jersey, has a new Democratic governor committed to legalization.
States will have ever less incentive to bear the costs and unpopularity of prohibition as neighboring states legalize and rake in a revenue windfall from a regulated marijuana market. As Mike Angel noted in Marijuana Moment, little Rhode Island feels "peer pressured" to move toward legalization simply because prohibition is will be doubly futile when larger neighboring sales have lucrative, regulated markets.
New York has a robust medical marijuana program with almost 1,700 registered providers and roughly 60,000 certified patients. Ari Hoffnung, CEO of Vireo Health, which operates dispensaries in Queens, White Plains, Albany and Binghamton, welcomed Cuomo’s announcement as a “monumental step” while noting the process of writing legislation and regulations has just begun.
“At the same time that steps are taken toward legalizing adult-use cannabis, certain regulatory reforms of the medical cannabis industry will ensure that we can continue serving patients who need high-quality, pharmaceutical-grade medicines,” Hoffnung said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the governor and lawmakers this year to ensure transparency, safety, and security are cornerstones of what can be the nation’s top adult-use market.”