Why pot legalization just failed again in one of the U.S.’s most liberal states

By Cale Guthrie Weissman

What a difference a day makes. On Tuesday, it seemed like there was still a chance. Today, after a legislative battle that dragged on for months, New York State lawmakers shot down a measure that would have legalized marijuana.

Given New York’s progressive bona fides and tolerant history—strong support for gay rights, generous social policies, Wigstock, Woodstock—it seems to defy logic. Why not pot?

The answer is simple—and likely the reason why most good and simple things don’t come to pass: politics.

This latest effort tried to bridge myriad political views to bring in enough lawmakers who would vote in favor of legalization, according to a recent Vox report. Already a heavy lift, that effort wasn’t helped by the governor’s flip-flopping. Only two years ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo described pot as a gateway drug; during last year’s Democratic primary he moved distinctly to the left and pledged support for legalization in 2018. This year, however, he’s gone back to his old ways and described recent legalization attempts as not “feasible.”

While most politicians seem to agree on the overriding belief that marijuana criminalization has led to millions of unnecessary arrests—predominantly impacting poor people of color—there’s lot of disagreement about how to implement the legal fix. One of the biggest impasses, the Buffalo News reports, is how revenues from marijuana sales would be allocated; “Lawmakers want a specific target for how much of that money would go to low-income, minority communities that have been disproportionately affected by marijuana arrests over the decades,” the newspaper writes. “Cuomo has said he agrees with that goal, but that funding decisions should be a part of the annual budget process at the Capitol.”

It seems that Cuomo had essentially given up working on this effort. Despite the fact that he has claimed to attend meetings with lawmakers to work out a passable version of the law, New York State Assembly members told the Buffalo News that the governor did not participate in the most recent attempt to amend the bill.

State Senator Liz Krueger, who worked to pass the legalization bill, admitted today that the law is not going to pass during this session. “This is only a delay, but that delay means countless lives will continue to be upended by unnecessary enforcement,” she wrote in a tweet.

The question remains: Will New York State will ever be able to pass such a sweeping bill? Over the last week, the state has passed two progressive pieces of legislation—one that gave tenants many more rights, another that will let undocumented immigrants get drivers licenses. With this impressive progressive streak, it seems like the state should easily be able to pass a marijuana law. Yet Cuomo and other lawmakers are unhappy with the specifics, wanting more control over the market if the plant were to become legal. And so, millions of New Yorkers unfairly penalized by the state’s retrograde laws will have to wait some more.

In the interim, some state lawmakers are considering putting forth other plans that would focus on more extreme decriminalization or expunging past records of marijuana-related legal offenses. We’ll see if Cuomo is amenable to any of those. If not, we may need to call Cynthia Nixon (remember her?).

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