Drug policy shift backed
Posted June 19, 2018 7:15 a.m. EDT
A study ordered by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recommends that the state legalize and regulate marijuana for adult recreational use, the state's top health official announced Monday.
That study has not been released to the public yet, but will be soon, said state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, who revealed the news Monday morning to a small group of reporters in Brooklyn.
In the same meeting, he announced the state would also be expanding its medical marijuana program to patients on prescription opioids _ a move designed to reduce reliance on the highly addictive prescription drugs as New York battles rising overdose rates amid a nationwide opioid epidemic.
But that news was quickly overshadowed by his announcement about the recreational marijuana study, which was undertaken by the state Health Department on Cuomo's orders in January. The Democratic governor has in recent months shifted his public stance on marijuana, a drug he once lambasted as a "gateway" to other, more dangerous drugs. In January, citing legalization in neighboring states, he said that "facts have changed" on marijuana and that, as a result, state policy may have to change as well.
The state-led study examined the effect that legalization in neighboring states would have on New York, as well as the impact legalization here might have on public health, safety and the economy. It also looked at how recreational marijuana would be taxed, where it would be grown, how it would be distributed, the age of use and the potential for drugged driving.
"There's a lot of variables there," Zucker said Monday. "We weighed them. We looked at the pros; we looked at the cons. And when we were done we realized that the pros outweigh the cons."
Should the governor and lawmakers act favorably on the study's recommendation, New York would be the 10th state to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Nine states, as well as Washington, D.C., have done so, including Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine. New Jersey is also exploring the possibility, and Canada is on the verge of legalization.
With just two days left of the 2018 state legislative session, however, it's highly unlikely legalization will occur in New York this year. For starters, the report itself hasn't even been finalized. Zucker said he is still "crossing t's and dotting i's" before he sends a final report to the governor. Asked Monday what its next steps would be, Cuomo's office said only: "We will review the report when we receive it."
Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who sponsored a bill with Sen. Liz Krueger to legalize adult recreational use in New York, told the Times Union that although the Democrat-led Assembly is likely to pass her bill, it's highly unlikely it will make it to the floor in the final jam-packed days of session.
"To do an eight- to nine- hour debate, first in conference then on the floor _ I'm not counting on that happening," she said. "But if it does I can tell you that I'll be ready."
By all appearances, the Republican-led Senate remains firmly against legal recreational marijuana use, though it does support expanding the state's medical marijuana program as a way to wean people off opioids.
"With only two days left in the legislative session our focus is on issues related to affordability, opportunity and security, and working with Sen. (George) Amedore and others to utilize medical marijuana as an alternative to heroin and opioids," said Senate GOP spokesman Scott Reif, about a bill the Senate passed Monday that would allow the use of medical marijuana for the treatment of substance use disorder or as an alternative to opioids for the treatment of pain.
"We will take a look at the (DOH) report whenever it's made available to the public, but our focus is on helping the people who really need it," Reif added.
Amedore, a Republican, agreed, adding that legalizing marijuana for anything beyond medical use is "a bridge too far."
"It's a gateway drug," he said. "We all know that."
Whether it happens this year or not, legalization will undoubtedly come up in this year's governor's race. Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, a Democratic rival of Cuomo's, campaigned on the issue, saying it presents an opportunity for social justice reform and reinvestment in communities of color that were hard hit by the war on drugs. Stephanie Miner, the former Democratic mayor of Syracuse who joined the race Monday, has also publicly expressed support for marijuana legalization.
A campaign spokesperson for Republican candidate Marc Molinaro, meanwhile, released a statement Monday couching Zucker's announcement as political maneuvering by the governor.
"Shocking: Andrew Cuomo, who's sprinting to the left because he's terrified of Cynthia Nixon and, now, Stephanie Miner, just had his handpicked 'Doogie Howser' rubber-stamp another decision that has less to do with science and everything to do with politics," said spokeswoman Katy Delgado.
"There are serious questions to be answered about marijuana; they should be answered by serious people without a political agenda," she added.
David Lombardo contributed.