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Marijuana debate could ignite in Albany

Marijuana debate could ignite in Albany

Legalization moves in Vermont, other states spur discussion, but Cuomo opposed
Marijuana debate could ignite in Albany
An employee scans cannabis products at the Berkeley Patients Group, in Berkeley, Calif., Jan. 4, 2018.
Photographer: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Correction: In New York state, medical marijuana is available in capsule, tincture and vaporizable oils. A previous version of this story did not identify all the forms in which it is available.

CAPITOL — With states across the country including neighboring Vermont and New Jersey legalizing or likely to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, debate on the question is coming back to Albany.

Three state Assembly committees held a joint hearing Thursday in New York City on a proposed bill that would legalize and regulate the sale of marijuana for recreational use — usually by smoking it. New York has had legalized medical marijuana since 2016, but only in capsule, tincture and vaporizable oils forms.

Any legalization move, however, would need to overcome the opposition of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

“It’s a gateway drug, and marijuana leads to other drugs and there’s a lot of proof that that’s true,” Cuomo said during a visit to Schenectady last February. “There’s two sides to the argument. But I, as of this date, I am unconvinced on recreational marijuana.”

Any new debate will take place as at least a half-dozen states consider legalization, some of them within the last few weeks, in what appears to be a direct response to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' decison earlier this month to reverse Obama-era policies that had federal law enforcement not confront states where pot is legal.

Sessions' new policy put him at odds with 29 states that allow medical use of marijuana, as well as eight states -- Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Nevada, Maine, Massachusetts and California -- that allow recreational use under laws that have passed in the last six years.

Since Sessions' announcement, Vermont and New Hampshire are moving toward legalization, and it looks likely to get serious consideration in Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey. States that legalize pot typically regulate and tax it, giving them a new source of revenue -- one that could be threatened if there is a new federal crackdown on pot use.

"Obviously, since Sessions rescinding the rule, people have been angry and there's been quite a bit of backlash," said Nancy Udell, an officer in Empire State NORML, which has been working to legalize marijuana for decades. "It's gotten people riled up, which is a good thing."

Local state Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, is among those who favor legalization. A member of the Assembly Health Committee, he is a co-sponsor of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which would legalize the production, distribution and use of marijuana for persons over age 21.

"It certainly doesn't mean I think its use should be widespread, but I think too much attention is focused on law enforcement," Steck said on Friday. "Can marijuana be harmful, yes, it can be; I think it's like alcohol, some people have a problem with it and some don't. But it gets disproportionate attention from law enforcement."

There were 23,000 arrests for marijuana crimes in New York state in 2016, the majority of them for possession, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

An Emerson College survey last November found that 62 percent of New Yorkers favor legalization of marijuana use by adults, and only 28 percent were opposed.

While a legalization bill could come to a vote in the Assembly and pass, Steck said he doesn't see it becoming law this year, largely because of Cuomo's position. "If the governor is not supportive of idea, he's not going to execise his influence with the state Senate to get them to move forward on it."

The bill has been introduced in the Republican-controlled Senate by Sen. Liz Kreuger, D-Manhattan, but it has no Republican co-sponsors.

Udell said NORML is somewhat more optimistic than it has been in previous legislative sessions, but Cuomo's opposition is likely to doom its chances of becoming law. "I think it will be discussed, and it has to start somewhere," she said. "As far as actually signing a bill, I don't think it will happen in 2018."

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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