A renewed push for recreational marijuana in New York next year faces threats spanning from deadly vaping-related illnesses to entrenched opposition led by doctors, educators and law enforcement.
Amid thousands of lung injuries tied to marijuana vaping and mounting state budget gaps, lawmakers and advocates are bracing for a political brawl over legalizing cannabis use for adults in 2020, after a similar bid failed earlier this year.
Some doctors, parents and anti-marijuana groups suggested the outbreak of vaping-related illnesses this year underscored cannabis risks, adding to their long-standing concerns about legal weed fueling drugged driving and youth marijuana use.
“What they’re doing is inviting a great social experiment at a time when it’s a risk to public health,” said Dr. Arthur Fougner, president of the Medical Society of the State of New York. “On balance the risks outweigh the good.”
Marijuana supporters, however, noted many of the lung illnesses have been linked to black-market vaping products and asserted it is a reason to create a tightly regulated legal cannabis marketplace.
“We really want to make sure we’re putting illegal markets out of business, said state Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, who has championed New York’s legal weed bill.
“We don’t want people buying products in back alleys before they’re of age; or if they don’t know what is in it, or if it’s brought in by dangerous cartels.”
Further, the upcoming political fight over a $6 billion state budget gap threatens to overshadow many other issues during the next Legislature session that begins in January.
“It depends on how much of a priority this (marijuana bill) is for leadership in both houses of the Legislature and how much of a priority is this of the governor, said state Sen. Peter Harckham, D-South Salem, one of the key lawmakers who derailed legal weed this year.
“The budget looks like it is going to be very ugly.”
Central to New York’s pot legalization reboot is mounting public support as two-thirds of Americans now say the use of marijuana should be legal, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
The share of U.S. adults who oppose legalization has fallen from 52% in 2010 to 32% today, a trend closely mirrored in New York, where opposition stood at 36% according to a recent Siena College poll.
A small majority of New Yorkers, 52%, agree that marijuana is basically the same as alcohol and should be treated the same, the poll found.
New York legalized medical marijuana in 2014, and the program now has about 111,000 patients and 2,600 prescribers.
Meanwhile, New York this month expanded its oversight over the legal hemp industry, which has been booming because of the growth in sales of products with CBD oil.
A coalition of 40 pro-marijuana groups has also urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to hold new listening sessions to better inform the legalization debate, citing potential repercussions in communities hit hardest by racially biased enforcement of marijuana laws.
The proposed meeting sites include cities with the highest numbers of marijuana arrests in upstate New York, such as Rochester and Syracuse, as well as the lower Hudson Valley, such as Mount Vernon, White Plains and Yonkers, according to a Dec. 2 letter to Cuomo.
“Given New York’s history of draconian enforcement, we must be bold and innovative in creating justice and equity within marijuana legalization,” the letter stated.
The coalition includes state and national groups focused on civil rights, legal aid, agriculture and legal marijuana policy.
In the midst of all the weed diplomacy, politically charged battles over marijuana tax revenue remain major factors in New York.
Disagreements over divvying up marijuana tax dollars proved key to the failed legal weed bill this year and could endanger the renewed effort in 2020.
To understand the stakes, consider state officials estimated collecting about $300 million in legal marijuana revenue per year when fully implemented.
Some lawmakers have pushed for using specific percentages of marijuana money for various issues, such as education, addiction treatment and investments in communities hit hardest by biased-pot policing.
“We have a really diverse mix of where we think that money should be spent, but we want it in locked boxes for those purposes,” Krueger said.
In contrast, Cuomo has proposed using unspecified amounts for an array of programs, such as traffic safety, addiction treatment and small-business development, as well as public health education and intervention.
Cuomo also proposed using some of the revenue to fund transit upgrades in New York City and its suburbs.
“My governor, like every governor, would like to have total control of how the money gets used. They always want to have total control over their state money,” Krueger said.
Amplifying the tension between Cuomo and the Legislature is the state budget gap on the horizon, which is largely driven by a $2.9 billion Medicaid deficit.
Details of Cuomo’s 2020 recreational marijuana proposal for New York are expected to be part of the executive budget next month.
Sorting out marijuana taxes is also crucial in changing the vote of a handful of key state senators, mostly in the New York City suburbs and Long Island, who didn’t support legal weed earlier this year.
One is Harckham, who remained undecided but appears to be leaning towards a yes vote in 2020 after a fact-finding trip to a legal weed dispensary last month in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, just over the New York border.
“There is clearly an appetite for this in New York, and people are willing to drive 40 miles to buy recreational cannabis legally,” he said, citing the glut of Empire State license plates in Massachusetts dispensary parking lots.
Dispensaries in Massachusetts recently reported nearly $400 million in legal weed sales during the first year, state data show.
And potential pot profits in New York have prompted cannabis industry leaders to deploy waves of lobbyists amid New York’s marijuana legalization battle, spending millions of dollars a year since 2013.
Yet limiting big cannabis companies’ ability to control New York’s legal weed marketplace is a top priority for some lawmakers and advocates pushing social equity through cannabis reform.
“We don’t want a situation like we’ve seen in several other states where four or five major corporations come in and scoop up all the licenses for growing and producing and selling of cannabis, a la big alcohol or big cigarette companies,” Krueger said.
While supportive of social equity plans, Harckham’s priorities include securing enough of the legal weed tax revenue for addiction treatment, law enforcement and education, as well as strong consumer safety standards.
“The thing about a legal market is you can control purity,” he said. “Even in the smokables, you don’t want pesticides and chemicals in there, and when people buy on the black market they have no idea what’s in there.”