National News

Cynthia Nixon's First Proposal: Loosen Marijuana Laws

Posted April 11, 2018 11:44 p.m. EDT

Cynthia Nixon on Wednesday made legalizing recreational marijuana the first policy plank of her campaign for governor, framing it as a necessary step toward reducing racial inequities in the criminal justice system — and, in doing so, bringing to the forefront an issue that may help her make inroads into Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s robust support among black voters.

Nixon’s stance puts her in contrast to Cuomo, whom she is challenging for the Democratic nomination. Cuomo has expressed concerns about recreational marijuana as a “gateway drug,” although in recent months, as New Yorkers have signaled their growing support for legalization, he has suggested he is willing to consider the issue.

In a brief homemade video posted to Twitter on Wednesday, Nixon, seated in her living room, speaking over a faint but steady hum of background noise, said 80 percent of New Yorkers arrested in connection with marijuana use were black or Latino, despite roughly equal rates of use among white people and communities of color.

“There are a lot of good reasons for legalizing marijuana, but for me, it comes down to this: We have to stop putting people of color in jail for something that white people do with impunity,” she said.

She added, “If there was more political courage coming out of Albany, New York, we would have done this already.”

Cuomo signed a bill legalizing the use of medical marijuana in 2014, and he has proposed decriminalizing public possession of small amounts of marijuana, a measure that has not passed the state Legislature. But he has been reluctant to embrace full recreational legalization, a move that 62 percent of registered New York voters support, according to a November 2017 survey by Emerson College.

Asked about Nixon’s announcement, Cuomo dismissed the idea that New York was falling behind the eight other states that had legalized recreational marijuana use. He pointed to a study he had commissioned in January to study the effects on New York of legalization in those neighboring states.

“There are many opinions, there are many cultural opinions, there’s a lot of division in the Legislature,” he said, adding, “I’m trying to depoliticize the issue and say, let’s get the facts.”

Nixon had declared her support for legalization at a small fundraiser in Manhattan in late March — pumping her fist in enthusiasm, one attendee said — but Wednesday’s announcement was the first time she detailed her position. Regulating and taxing marijuana, she said, would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue and create jobs in the agricultural industry.

In a statement to The New York Times, Nixon also suggested that she would seek to mitigate the effects of past criminalization.

“Ending the injustice of putting New Yorkers in prison for marijuana is a start,” she said. “But we also have to correct past injustices, by expunging prior convictions — particularly for nonviolent offenders whose only convictions are for marijuana use.”

While her candidacy has attracted attention across New York and the country — Nixon, an actress, is best known for starring in the television show “Sex and the City” — polls suggest she faces a steep climb in her challenge to Cuomo, a second-term incumbent with $30 million in campaign funds. In a Siena College poll last month, 66 percent of Democratic voters said they would support Cuomo in a primary, compared to 19 percent who chose Nixon; among African-American voters, 77 percent backed Cuomo.

Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political consultant who is not working on either campaign, said Nixon’s selection of legalization as her first policy issue and her emphasis on racial inequities in marijuana arrests reflected her recognition of Cuomo’s bulwark of support among African-American voters.

“By pushing for this, it not only helps her connect to younger minority voters but younger progressive voters. But the question is, will it be a motivator to vote?” he said. “It’s a very interesting issue choice — I’m not saying it’s crazy — but I don’t know that it will on its own do the trick.”

In 2014, when Zephyr Teachout, a little-known Fordham Law professor, challenged Cuomo for the Democratic nomination, she captured one-third of ballots in the primary — but failed to win a foothold among minority voters.

Gyory said Nixon, who, like Teachout, has positioned herself as a strong progressive alternative to Cuomo’s centrism, would face a similarly uphill battle.

“The holy grail of New York politics has been the notion that white progressives can win a majority of minority voters,” he said. “And there have been very few who have been successful in that.”