Effort to Legalize Adult Use of Marijuana Fails in New York State

By Jerome T. Levy and Lauren G. Perry

Lauren G. Perry
Lauren G. Perry
Jerome T. Levy

On June 17, 2019, the New York Legislative session adjourned without passing a bill that would have legalized adult use cannabis in the state.  The sponsor of the leading bill in the assembly and Manhattan Democratic Senator, Liz Krueger, announced that there was not sufficient time to gain the support necessary for passage of a bill.  Although there appears to be broad popular support for legalization of marijuana in New York, a number of “safety” issues arose, particularly among suburban constituencies relating to concerns such as operation of motor vehicles under the influence of marijuana.  Sentiment in suburban areas caused lawmakers from those districts to withhold the support needed, particularly in the state senate.  In addition, many blamed the failure on Governor’s Cuomo’s reluctance to give the measure full support.  Although the governor had endorsed adult use legalization earlier in the session, and had attempted to include it within the budget bill passed at the end of March, at the critical time before adjournment he appeared to take a hands‑off approach, becoming oddly passive, a pose this activist governor rarely adopts.

There were several different versions of the adult use cannabis legislation which would appear to have been able to pass the state assembly.  However, given the lack of support in the senate, the assembly did not move the measure to vote.  The version of the bill with the most support in the assembly provided for the creation of a new agency (the Office of Cannabis Management) tasked with regulating adult use cannabis, medical cannabis (presently regulated by the Health Department) and hemp (regulated by the Department of Agriculture and Markets).  Also the bill was amended to address criminal justice reform, which would expunge records of those convicted of low‑level marijuana offenses.  This was a prime goal of minority legislators who were aggressive in tying any cannabis legalization to elimination of past criminal offenses and expungements of convictions, which they asserted were disproportionate in their effect on minority groups.

Indeed, the one area which was successful was a bill that will reduce the penalty for marijuana possession of up to two ounces to a violation (instead of a misdemeanor).  The new legislation also allows for certain low‑level marijuana criminal records to be expunged.  While this bill has yet to be signed by the governor, he has indicated his support and is expected to sign it at an appropriate time.

One important factor in the loss of forward momentum for legalization in New York was that the New Jersey Legislature failed to pass a bill legalizing cannabis adult use.  Governor Murphy of New Jersey had pushed hard for legislation in that state.  After New Jersey’s efforts failed, the governor of New York seemed to adopt a “wait‑and‑see” attitude, issuing statements that there remained problems to be worked out.

There continues to be clerical and other opposition to Cannabis legalization, and the questions regarding safety of driving and cannabis remain to be addressed, perhaps data gathered from other states with adult legalization will cast light on this issue.  Another issue not resolved is “local option.”  Will towns or municipalities be given the right to “opt out” of having dispensaries within their borders?

Finally, it must be pointed out that 2020 is an election year.  In New York State legislative history, it is much harder to enact substantive legislation in an election year.  The session is shorter so that members can campaign, and members are reluctant to face controversial issues because of the proximity to the vote.  Thus, it is less likely that New York will embrace adult use marijuana in 2020 than it was this year.  Advocates may have to wait until 2021.