NY lawmakers 'close' to deal on marijuana legalization, Heastie says

Mar 16, 2021

The state Legislature is close to a deal on legalizing marijuana for recreational, adult use in New York, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said Monday, with lawmakers now trying to move on the issue in the next two weeks.

Heastie (D-Bronx) said Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature, are near an agreement and Gov. Andrew Cuomo appears to be moving closer to their proposal.

“I think we’re trying to get it done before we pass the budget,” Heastie said. “I think the executive is moving closer to where Majority Leader Peoples-Stokes and Sen. Krueger are.”

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) and Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) have led negotiations in recent years on legalizing marijuana in New York, but the votes weren’t there to move on it until this year.

Sources say discussions on legalization are now moving quickly, and that a deal could be announced as early as this week. A few days is also an eternity in Albany, so an agreement could just as easily fall apart.

But in a signal that lawmakers expect to strike a deal before the end of the month, a plan to legalize marijuana wasn’t included in either one-house budget proposal approved Monday by the State Senate and Assembly.

As part of the state budget process, both chambers release a rebuttal to the governor’s plan in March. That sets the stage for final negotiations on the spending plan, which is due April 1.

Cuomo’s budget proposal, presented in January, included a plan to legalize marijuana. But the one-house budget plans passed Monday by the Senate and Assembly did not.

That’s a sign that lawmakers don’t intend to consider it as part of the state budget, which traditionally combines major spending items with controversial policy proposals in a series of omnibus bills. 

While negotiating the state budget, Cuomo had clashed with lawmakers in recent years over how tax revenue from marijuana sales would be used by the state. Lawmakers wanted a large part earmarked for social equity purposes. He did not.

That, along with concerns over road safety, tax rates on the drug and if people should be allowed to grow the plant at home, had been major sticking points in recent years.

We don’t know where lawmakers are headed, as of now, in terms of a final agreement on legalizing cannabis. There are a handful of proposals floating around in the state legislature, but a deal on the issue will likely include elements from multiple plans.

Cuomo’s proposal for legalizing the drug would tax it based on potency, while the Legislature’s plan would assign set tax rates on sales to consumers and retailers. 

Cuomo had also wanted to allow municipalities to ban marijuana retailers from their communities. Lawmakers had initially opposed that idea, but have since said they’d be open to it, if it meant coming to a deal on the issue.

Speaking at a public event Monday, Cuomo confirmed that he was close to an agreement on legalization with the Legislature.

“I spent this past weekend on the phone with the Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes working through it,” Cuomo said. “We're very close on marijuana.”

A coalition of groups have remained opposed to legalization in New York, including the New York State PTA, the State Sheriffs Association and more.

They’ve expressed concerns over children getting a hold of the drug, and how members of law enforcement would detect if a driver was intoxicated from marijuana. There’s currently no quick and easy way to test someone for the drug.

Previous proposals have considered allocating new funds to law enforcement agencies to pay for specialized staff that could recognize signs of intoxication. It’s unclear if that will make it into a final deal.

But supporters of legalization pointed Monday to a new poll from Siena College that showed nearly two-thirds of New Yorkers want a deal on legal cannabis.

“Literally every single category of voters from every corner of the state -- women, men, liberals, conservatives, from upstate, downstate and everywhere in between -- supports legal marijuana now,” said Melissa Moore, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

The poll, also released Monday, found that 59% of those asked would support marijuana legalization in New York.