Despite the fact that New York state is on a fast track to becoming the new global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic and politicians are locking horns over how to best respond to the crisis, some non-virus-related government business will continue as usual. And that will include marijuana legalization, Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters this week.
“We will pass a budget and address the policy items that we laid out and discussed [in January],” Cuomo said during a press briefing on Monday. Those items include banning flavored e-cigarettes, tweaking certain cash-bail reforms and legalizing recreational marijuana. “We are going to pursue all of them,” the governor said.
New York state has a thriving cannabis market. But despite meaningful progress in marijuana-related policy reform, such as decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2019, the state still lags behind many parts of the country in not only legalizing recreational marijuana, but accommodating access to medical cannabis.
Medical marijuana has been legal in New York state since 2014, but access is restricted only to seriously ill individuals meeting a list of strict criteria. As a result, there were only 98,101 eligible patients in the entire state at the end of 2018, data from New York State Department of Health shows.
On the recreational side, New York doesn’t allow for citizen-sponsored voter initiatives like most states where recreational marijuana is legal. Efforts last year to legalize recreational use through the normal legislative process failed—prompting many New Yorkers to take weekend trips to Massachusetts to purchase cannabis.
One of the main selling points of legalizing marijuana is money, as state government could reduce spending on police enforcement and incarceration while increasing tax revenue (from cannabis-related businesses), which the state will need badly when the pandemic is over.
The New York City subway system, for example, could benefit hugely from a higher budget. With ridership down a staggering 60 percent since the outbreak of COVID-19, the MTA is already seeking a multibillion-dollar bailout. Cuomo’s proposed January budget addressed a $6.1 billion shortfall. The coronavirus crisis could add another $4 billion to the state deficit, lawmakers warned this month.
And even if legalization doesn’t go through, reform advocates point out, Cuomo could still add cash to the budget and fulfill at least some of the wellness and social goals of legalized cannabis by expanding medical marijuana access.
“Medical marijuana is a public health issue so Governor Cuomo could use executive power and federal resources further incentivizing prospective licensees to correct disparities in and around impacted areas,” We Rise to Legalize, a New York City-based reform advocacy group, posted on Instagram on Tuesday. “That’s easy math.”