Pols Begin Push to Legalize Marijuana in New York State

Liz Krueger and the other advocates gathered before City Hall. (Photo: Krueger office)

Liz Krueger and the other advocates gathered before City Hall. (Photo: Krueger office)

Riding high on optimism, State Senator Liz Krueger and a bevy of Democratic pols began a public push today to legalize and tax marijuana in New York State.

Ms. Krueger will soon introduce legislation to legalize pot in the State Senate, beginning an uphill battle that could pit her against Republicans, who partially control the Senate chamber, and possibly Gov. Andrew Cuomo. 

Speaking today, Ms. Krueger defended the bill in the face of expected criticism.

“Am I supporting this legislation because I think everybody should go out and smoke marijuana or because I want to smoke marijuana? No,” the East Side lawmaker said at a press conference on the steps of City Hall. “I don’t believe a drug that is proven to be less dangerous, from a health perspective, than alcohol or tobacco should be under laws that actually criminalize and ruin lives when alcohol or tobacco are regulated and taxed.”

Known as the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, the bill would legalize, regulate and tax marijuana along lines similar to the state’s current system regulating alcohol. It would remove penalties for possession of two ounces or less, make 18 the minimum legal age for possession and consumption, but prohibit sales of pot to people under 21. An excise tax of $50 per ounce would be established and local authorities would be able to charge sales tax on retail sales.

Buffalo Assemblyman Crystal Peoples-Stokes will introduce similar legislation in the Democrat-dominated Assembly where lawmakers are undoubtedly more receptive to the measure.

Ms. Krueger, joined by several activists, argued that current drug laws are discriminatory because black and Latino communities are disproportionately burdened with police records for the relatively minor crime of possession. Proponents for the bill also contend that it would stamp out the black market for the drug, just as ending prohibition did for alcohol. Critics, however, say that pot remains a gateway drug to more dangerous substance abuse and is harmful itself.

A man holds a giant joint during a march for the legalization of cannabis in Santiago, Chile. (Photo: Martin Bernetti/Getty)

A man holds a giant joint during a march for the legalization of cannabis in Santiago, Chile. (Photo: Martin Bernetti/Getty)

Similar legislative efforts have successfully passed in Colorado and Washington, but Mr. Cuomo, while supportive of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot, has said he does not back legalizing marijuana completely, even for medical use. Mr. Cuomo did offer that he would keep “an open mind” on the issue, however.

Ms. Krueger said she hadn’t yet reached out to Mr. Cuomo or Senate Republicans, who govern the chamber with a coalition of breakaway Democrats, but hoped public support for the bill would convince them the legislation should pass.

“For one thing, public opinion polls show the public is with us on this issue,” Ms. Krueger told Politicker. “Mothers are some of the strongest proponents of wanting this changed in law. So, from urban moms who see their kids in stop-and-frisk getting busted to suburban soccer moms, they are the voice of support for this kind of legislation. And my experience, when women in this country decide they want change in laws, we are often successful in getting them.”

A spokesperson for the Assembly Democrats did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Senator Diane Savino, a member of the breakaway Democratic faction, said she supports legalizing marijuana for medical use but hinted that full legalization was unlikely.

“We welcome all discussions on marijuana policy. But while there is some support for legalization in New York State, it is not universal,” Ms. Savino said. “However, there is overwhelming support across all corners of our state for medical marijuana, which is something I have and will continue to fight for each and everyday.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Senate Republicans panned the effort–perhaps another sign of the uphill battle for legalization advocates.

“We’re focused on cutting taxes to create new jobs so families can stay in New York. The Senate Democrats, it would appear, have other priorities,” the spokesman said.

Mr. Cuomo’s spokesman, Matthew Wing, was even more blunt, simply telling Politicker the bill is “a non-starter.”

Update (2:13 p.m.): With Mr. Wing’s comment. Additional reporting by Colin Campbell.