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New York Puts Off Legalizing Marijuana, For Now

Mathew Sumner

Governor Andrew Cuomo said legalizing recreational marijuana is not going to be part of the state budget this year.

Cuomo made his comments as the budget deadline approached with no agreement on how to close a $15 billion budget gap, caused by the fallout from the coronavirus.

He was asked about the fate of the legal cannabis proposal during his daily briefing on the coronavirus. 

"It's not likely," he said. "Too much, too little time." 

The Senate sponsor of the bill, Liz Krueger, said two weeks ago that she thought it was not realistic that the governor and Legislature could negotiate a complicated measure in the budget to set up a legal marijuana system in New York, with all of the distractions caused by the coronavirus crisis. 

The news disappointed advocates, including the Drug Policy Alliance, but the group's Melissa Moore said it's understandable. 

"I don't think anyone could have foreseen the circumstances that we would be operating within as we are in the final days of closing the budget here in New York," said Moore, who added COVID-19 is "rightfully" demanding so much of the lawmakers' attention.

"Not moving to legalize cannabis through the budget process right now…it makes sense," she said. 

She said her group is more focused right now on helping the people they advocate for who have suffered from the effects of the decades-long criminalization of the drug. She said some have seen their lives disrupted by imprisonment, and don't always have adequate housing, health insurance or employment.  

"There's just a lot of focus on day-to-day, life-or-death scenarios," Moore said.  

Moore said she hopes lawmakers will return to the Capitol later this year and legalize cannabis.  

Opponents are pleased, including the national group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM.

Dr. Kevin Sabet, the group's president, said it would be "irresponsible" to legalize the drug now "at a time of an international pandemic and when New York is struggling to keep people alive." 

"It makes no sense to legalize something that actually makes people's lungs worse and hurts their immune system," Sabet said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a mysterious illness believed to be related to vaping black-market THC products killed several hundred people across the country. Sabet said allowing the vaping of cannabis, as well as tobacco-based products, needs to be reconsidered. 

"Generally, marijuana has gotten a green light by society the last couple of years, thinking that it's safe to use and is medicine," Sabet said. 

Sabet said his group supports the use of limited medical marijuana, and also does not agree with strict criminalization of the drug. 

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Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.
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