On July 29, 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) signed state legislation that further decriminalizes the possession of cannabis. The bill, sponsored by Senator Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx), was passed by the New York State Assembly just over a month before it was signed, receiving 39 to 20 votes in the State Senate and 94 to 44 votes in the State Assembly.
Cannabis was first decriminalized in New York in 1977, when the punishment for possession of about an ounce or less of cannabis was reduced from a misdemeanor and jail time to the payment of fines. Possession of cannabis in “public view” could still result in charges and arrest. In 2014, Governor Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act, sponsored by Senator Diane Savino (D), which legalized the prescription and use of non-smoking forms of medical marijuana for patients with serious illnesses. Under the most recent bill, the threshold for legal cannabis possession more than doubled to just over 2 ounces, and the punishments are applied in the same manner regardless of whether or not it is in public view. Additional provisions of the bill level cannabis convictions.
While some advocates of cannabis legalization see the passage of the decriminalization bill as a victory, others believe it missed the mark. The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) would have provided for the regulation and taxation of recreational use of cannabis in New York. Although supporters of the bill were able to garner enough support from the State Assembly, they couldn’t clear the hurdle in the State Senate.
Many legislators who were on the fence about legalizing cannabis expressed concerns with the potential ramifications of legalization, including road safety, use by minors, and drug treatment funding. Others disagreed about how the state should invest tax revenues earned through legalization – while some believed the proceeds should be used to reinvest in the communities that have been impacted by the state’s drug laws, others thought the funds should be invested in the state’s infrastructure. Inside sources claimed that the bill had enough votes to pass just days before the legislative session ended, but demands and requests for further amendment led to the ultimate death of the bill. Ultimately, legislators seemed to reach a “happy medium” in passing the cannabis decriminalizing bill instead.
There have been different theories about the reasons behind why the legalization bill was unable to succeed during this year’s session. Governor Cuomo thought that cannabis should have simply been added into the state budget rather than addressed separately, believing that the approach would be an easier pill for legislators to swallow. Others thought it was a mistake to wait so late in the session to attempt the legislation amendment.
Despite the potential missteps during the process, Senator Krueger and Assembly Majority Leader Peoples-Stokes confirmed that they plan to continue their efforts next year to pass a bill legalizing recreational use of cannabis in the state. According to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), the negotiations will be tense in 2020 since it will be an election year. For now, it appears that the legislator proponents of legalization have accepted the most recent loss of their battle to legalize cannabis, but apparently the war is not over…