ALBANY – A Cuomo administration panel will recommend New York State legalize recreational use of marijuana, the state’s health commissioner said Monday.
But the long-awaited report by the group has still not been released as the State Legislature looks to end its 2018 session on Wednesday – leaving action for this year on the matter all but impossible.
Dr. Howard Zucker, the state’s top health regulator, said public health, law enforcement and others inside and outside government, have been examining the issue of marijuana legalization since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo asked for a study on the issue in January.
The health commissioner made his comments on legalization of the drug during a question-and-answer session in Brooklyn this morning at an event in which the state announced it will make medical marijuana available as an opioid prescription alternative.
Zucker said the recreational marijuana study panel was created earlier this year by Cuomo because “the facts have changed” on the availability and use of the drug, such as legalization of marijuana in some neighboring and nearby states.
“We looked at the pros. We looked at the cons … the pros outweigh the cons," Zucker said of the panel’s work on whether to legalize marijuana in New York.
The Cuomo adviser did not reveal a range of specifics on the issue, including at what age the drug could be legally used, how it would be distributed and how the state would regulate and tax its use. All Zucker would say is that the report of the study group will be made available “soon, soon."
The reaction from Cuomo's political opponents and health care providers raised a host of concerns.
A spokeswoman for Cynthia Nixon, a Democratic challenging Cuomo in the Democratic primary, said the timing of the announcement – on the first day of the Buffalo Billion corruption trial in Manhattan – was more than suspect.
"After the governor allowed our state's marijuana laws to criminalize communities of color for eight years, it is the most disgusting form of irony that the governor is now using marijuana to distract from a corruption trial of a close associate,'' said Nixon spokeswoman Lauren Hitt.
An organization representing drug treatment providers urged caution and for the state to more fully explore all the implications of legalizing marijuana.
Several states near New York, in addition to Canada, have made or are about to make recreational marijuana use legal.
New York lawmakers are wrapping up their annual legislative session and partisan squabbles in the Senate – where GOP-led and Democratic conferences each have 31 members apiece – have stalled actions on a host of major initiatives. Adding marijuana legalization to that pile would seem, as of Monday afternoon, an insurmountable task for those pushing to make pot legal.
Republicans who are in the majority in the Senate would have little impetus to legalize marijuana as the 2018 session limps to a crawl. The GOP is in a pitched battle to beat back an effort by Democrats to take over the Senate, and conservative allies of the Republicans would revolt if the Senate legalized marijuana.
For Cuomo, too, the issue has been an evolving one. Cuomo for years opposed efforts to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. When he did back it in 2014 – the last time he was up for re-election – the governor demanded one of the most strict medical marijuana programs in the nation. Critics have called it too strict, with the drug difficult to get for many eligible patients in rural and other areas.
Cuomo only 16 months ago dismissed calls to legalize marijuana for recreational use, calling it a “gateway” to stronger drugs. Cuomo has pushed to decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug.
Albany is a town where items that suddenly pop up at the end of a legislative session have a way of just as suddenly getting approved at the last minute before lawmakers leave Albany for the rest of the year.
On this matter, though, Republicans were dubious. “Slim and none," Senator John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse-area Republican, said of the chances recreational marijuana will be legalized this week before the session ends.
“Never say never in Albany, but I can’t imagine a report this long in coming is going to result in legislation in 48 hours," said DeFrancisco, who opposes legalizing marijuana.
Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, a Williamsville Republican, questioned the health commissioner commenting on a report that has not yet been made public. “It sounds like they have already made the decision before they really did the study," the GOP lawmaker said.
Ranzenhofer said an exhaustive study, with public hearings, is needed before changing the drug laws as Zucker envisions. “It’s premature," he said of the legalization effort.
Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, said the Senate is working on a range of end-of-session issues, including the use of medical marijuana as an alternative for some people who are addicted to heroin and opioids. "We will take a look at the report whenever it's made available to the public but our focus is on helping people who really need it,'' Reif said of marijuana.
Katy Delgado, a spokeswoman for Marc Molinaro, the Republican gubernatorial candidate running against Cuomo, noted Cuomo's political push to attract liberal voters. She said Cuomo's health commissioner rubber stamped a Cuomo decision "that has less to do with science and everything to do with politics."
"There are serious questions to be answered about marijuana. They should be answered by serious people without a political agenda. The only thing this governor cares about is his political career," she said.
In a statement, the New York Association of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers said any effort to legalize marijuana needs to be accompanied by "robust and well-funded" prevention, education and treatment programs. It called for a comprehensive examination of the issue, from the health impacts of state-sanctioned drug use taken mostly via smoking the drug to creation of public awareness campaigns against the dangers of marijuana use while driving.
"If the Department of Health is providing the primary guidance leading to legalized commercial and recreational marijuana, their plan must incorporate all of the public health implications of legalization and how negative implications might be mitigated,'' said John Coppola, the group's executive director.