I Feel Like a Number

As he prepares for his reelection campaign in earnest, Governor Cuomo has gotten religious on the matter of medical marijuana. Indeed, with the zeal of a convert and the stroke of his pen, the governor plans to legalize pot for a limited number of patients in New York—without the usual practice of seeking approval from the legislature.

The governor had been a staunch opponent of medical marijuana, so his election-year change of heart inevitably has sparked speculation about what he saw on the road to Damascus and when he saw it. It is hard not to observe that this unexpected turn to the left coincides with the dramatic rise of Bill de Blasio as a national star of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. Mr. Cuomo has not exactly set progressive hearts aflutter during his first term with his business-friendly initiatives and his much-needed reforms of public employee pensions and benefit packages.

What’s more, there’s that fellow across the Hudson River who has this annoying habit of attaching himself to conversations about the 2016 presidential campaign. Chris Christie created a whole series of protocols and rules before allowing New Jersey to move forward with medical marijuana. Mr. Cuomo’s newfound position, by contrast, is downright humane and much more sympathetic—a nice distinction to have in an election year.

Whatever the reason, Mr. Cuomo’s embrace, however tentative, of medical marijuana is welcome. Patients with some forms of cancer and other severe illnesses will now have recourse to a treatment that may help alleviate their suffering.

Of course, New York hardly stands at the cutting edge of marijuana legalization. Colorado and Washington State are clearing a path that other states inevitably will follow over the next 10 years. The fading away of legal proscriptions against pot is not without issues—just ask folks in Seattle who arrive at work half-stoned after passing so many smokers on their way to the office. But still, the days of underground pot use do seem to be numbered.

Governor Cuomo, then, is on the right side of history and not for the first time. His detractors on the left may obsess about the evil of tax-free enterprise zones and other pro-growth policies, but they seem to forget his leadership on marriage equality. Without Mr. Cuomo’s advocacy, marriage equality might well have arrived in New York passively, by default, rather than through positive legislative action.

With limited legalization of pot for medicinal purposes, New York may begin to rethink its notoriously tough enforcement of conventional marijuana laws. Almost 450,000 misdemeanor charges were filed against New Yorkers caught using or possessing marijuana between 2002 and 2012. 

Mr. Cuomo has indicated that he understands the folly of current drug laws and policies. His strong action on behalf of cancer patients and others with severe health problems is more than a gesture of sympathy. It is, or at least it should be, another step toward a saner attitude toward pot use.

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