ALBANY – Many supporters of the state referendum to convene a constitutional convention are citing as reason the possibilities to diminish incumbent-friendly campaign finance laws, enact term limits and end gerrymandered districts.
Other advocates are pressing a much different reason to vote yes: legalization of marijuana in New York.
Stymied in their efforts to get the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to go along with their idea, these advocates see a convention of delegates brought together to consider changes to the constitution as a means to loosen marijuana laws.
“In New York, we have this singular opportunity,’’ said Jerome Dewald, a Manhattan resident who is one of the organizers of a marijuana yes vote effort called Restrict & Regulate in New York State.
It's not an easy sell. Nowhere on the statewide ballot is there any guarantee that any issue, whether it’s marijuana or anti-corruption ideas, would even be considered in a convention.
Instead, all New Yorkers are being asked is whether a convention should be held to amend the state’s constitution. If approved Proposal 1 passes, delegates would be selected next year in a separate election and a convention would be held in 2019.
A path to pot?
A Siena College poll in July found 49 percent of New Yorkers support legalization of marijuana for recreational use, while 47 percent were opposed.
“Our task is not to persuade people. That was done already. Our task is to wake people up to tell them there is a viable pathway to legalizing marijuana in New York State and deal with it in a rational way and in a way that’s unprecedented,’’ Dewald said.
He described himself as an investor who has had financial holdings in start-up cannabis companies, including some that bid several years ago on the first round of licenses to grow and sell medical marijuana in New York.
Opponents of both the constitutional convention and marijuana legalization efforts said Dewald offers another incentive for voters to reject Proposal 1 next month.
“It’s a clear reason why I’m opposed to having a constitutional convention because you never know what whacky ideas will come of it, and this is one of them,’’ said Mike Long, chairman of the state Conservative Party.
A splintered cause
Restrict & Regulate in New York State has done organizational work with some of the pro-Proposal 1 group, trying to organize supporters.
It is reaching out to people who associate themselves with other causes that Dewald thinks would back marijuana legalization, including left-leaning people who support Sen. Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter. The low-cost campaign includes finding those people on social media outlets and then directing them to website “landing pages” where they can get more information about the Proposal 1.
The effort is not attracting some of the leading drug policy groups that have worked the halls of the New York Legislature on relaxing drug laws, such as the Washington, DC-based Marijuana Policy Project. Such groups have been instrumental in ballot campaigns that do end-runs around state legislatures bodies, the approach most often successful where marijuana has been decriminalized or legalized.
Melissa Moore, the deputy state director in New York of the Drug Policy Alliance, said her group supports marijuana legalization but is neutral on Proposal 1.
Instead, the Manhattan-based group is focusing on legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana -- such as a plan proposed by Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, and Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat. The group believes any legalization effort should address expunging marijuana possession arrest records, which she said is affecting more than 800,000 people who were arrested in New York over the past 20 years.
The Manhattan group is also reluctant to join the convention campaign because it has alliances on its broader policy agenda with a number of groups that actively oppose Proposal 1.
“We recognize that opening up the state constitution would also touch on a lot of issues well beyond marijuana legalization, many of which could potentially end up being altered in ways that would hurt our members or our allies, who live more than single—issue lives,’’ Moore said.
The Buffalo News reported last week that the one anti-Proposal 1 group, funded almost exclusively by an array of labor unions, has raised $1.5 million for its campaign to stop the convention. Four main groups backing the convention question have brought in under $400,000.
The Restrict & Regulate pro-marijuana group, meanwhile, reported in July it raised $135,000, but all but $1,300 of that came in the form of “in-kind” donations from Dewald for such things as use of his home office to promote Proposal 1. On Monday, more than a week late, the group submitted its 32-day required disclosure with the state elections board showing it raised $102,500 since July, but $96,000 of that amount was another series of in-kind donations from Dewald. The group reported just $9,700 in campaign expenditures since July.
Raising money has met a few obstacles, Dewald said, including the overwhelming union opposition to Proposal 1 and the work involved in convincing potential donors that the marijuana issue would even find a place on the convention if a gathering were held.
Another hurdle to raising money: Dewald was convicted in Michigan on fraud and larceny charges connected to two of his political action committees formed during the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. One committee raised money from people backing Bush and the other from people backing Gore. Dewald said he did not commit the crimes, calling it a “story of injustice,’’ but he acknowledged it hasn’t helped in attracting some donors.
Dewald and his team believe in this off-election year that they have to get 600,000 to 800,000 people to support Proposal 1 in order for it to win.