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Lawmakers still pushing to legalize pot, but there's a Plan B

ALBANY – Lawmakers are making a last-ditch effort, sans Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, to enact legislation to legalize marijuana in New York State.

But the clock is ticking and the State Senate as of Tuesday evening still did not have the votes to pass a measure, even as a newly amended version – in a bid to lure fence-sitting lawmakers – was making the rounds of lawmakers’ offices.

On Wednesday morning, sources involved in the negotiations said the legalization effort died overnight. Amendments designed to bring in more yes votes to the effort in the Senate never materialized, as lawmakers promised Tuesday, because it became clear that even the newly worded measure was not enough to sway opponents in the Senate. For full legalization to occur this session, it would take a three-way deal between the governor and two houses; such an agreement has been elusive all session.

Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, said the issue is "dead for now, but I will continue to push for a tax and regulate adult program with all the right safeguards and commitments to reinvestment in communities most harmed by decades of failed prohibition policies. I do believe several subsections of the bill might pass before we leave town,'' Krueger said in a text message this morning. She did not elaborate on which sections she believes might get approved.

Now, Plan B is gaining momentum if the full legalization does not materialize before lawmakers by the end their 2019 session sometime this week. Ideas include: a far-more reaching decriminalization of marijuana than has existed in New York for 42 years; expungement of records for certain past marijuana criminal offenses; making the existing medical marijuana program less regulated and open to more patients; and new oversight of the growing hemp industry.

Legislative negotiators worked into the early hours Tuesday morning on what would be the fourth version of a marijuana legalization bill. The changes, not yet made public, would address some lawmakers’ concerns about adequate funding for law enforcement, road safety initiatives and a public health campaign in schools.

It also would, according to sources inside and outside government, eliminate an earlier provision that would have allowed New Yorkers to grow a small amount of marijuana in their homes. Some lawmakers are also pushing to have a provision that would require localities to affirmatively “opt in” to a program that would allow retail sales in their communities, an idea that would likely make the drug far less available than an alternative “opt out” provision.

The latest talks are being legislatively driven, lawmakers say.

“The governor didn’t participate. I want to say he probably makes people think he was participating," said Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat who is the sponsor of the legalization effort in the Assembly.

The Cuomo administration took exception to the remarks by the lawmaker. "Talks on this issue with the governor's office and the Legislature have been going on consistently for weeks. With all due respect to the Assembly majority leader, I don't know what she's talking about," said Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Cuomo. He said negotiations are still ongoing.

A chief sticking point has also revolved around the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tax revenues Albany would see from taxing legal marijuana sales. 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.

Cuomo has said he agrees with that goal, but that funding decisions should be a part of the annual budget process at the Capitol.

State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

But Peoples-Stokes said such a plan for investing in such communities – with economic development, social services, health and other programs – “can’t be at the whim of whoever is governor now or in the future.

“That’s a line in the sand for me now, and it’s going to be a line in the sand for me in the future. If we can’t get to that, I’m not willing to open a market that will garner tons of people, multiple billions of dollars if we can’t have a commitment to invest in the communities that have been harmed (by drug laws)," she said.

Session is due to end Wednesday, though there is growing talk that it could drag into Thursday or Friday.

Asked about the status of marijuana legalization, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said: “We’re still talking it through. There’s still two more days. We’ll see what happens."

If the session is coming to an end without a full legalization effort this week, Peoples-Stokes, who holds considerable influence over the negotiations for the Assembly, signaled a willingness for the Plan B option.

“I’m really looking forward to bring something home to the people I represent. And If I can't bring full legalization of adult (marijuana) use, I’m happy to bring them an opportunity to get their records cleared," she said of legislation to clear criminal convictions for certain marijuana crimes down to a violation level.

In the State Senate, the bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, was not immediately available on Tuesday afternoon.

Groups pressing for marijuana legalization said anything short of that would be considered a failure. "In short, the collateral consequences of marijuana criminalization that devastate our communities would continue to exist," a group of 13 activist organizations, including the Drug Policy Alliance and the New York Working Families Party, wrote in letter to Cuomo and legislative leaders Tuesday evening.

One group fighting the legalization effort said additional decriminalization measures is a solution. "We have always supported decriminalization as we must addresses these systematic issues of abhorrent arrest rates of (especially) young black and Hispanic men,” Kyle Belokopitsky, executive director of NYS PTA, said in a written statement. “We continue to strongly oppose the legalization of recreational marijuana, however, as that will absolutely, unequivocally, and undoubted harm our children.”

A marijuana legalization advocate said State Senate supporters are not giving up hope yet for full legalization.

“We’re not ready for Plan B yet. Plan A is still alive and kicking," said State Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat and sponsor of the 2014 State Senate legislation that legalized medical marijuana in New York State.

Senators are reviewing new amendments that backers hope will turn some no or maybe votes to yes. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to get people to a comfortable place," Savino said.

But if Plan B becomes the option, Savino said medical marijuana laws need to be improved. Since the program’s start, lawmakers have been tinkering with the law to permit more health conditions to be covered for the drug’s use and additional suppliers have been added to the system.

Savino said the original law was “deliberately narrow in scope.” Peoples-Stokes added, “It was really not done right when it was done because of the governor’s hesitation about its real medicinal value."

Years later, Savino said, “We’re still at a point where patients are waiting too long, traveling too far and paying too much. We need to fix that and we need to take away some of the barriers. … It’s medicine and we should treat it like medicine. We need to have government get out of the way in dictating how a doctor or health care provider treats their patients and allow this program to truly do what it was intended to do, which is provide harm reduction for patients and treatment alternatives in a more timely way.”

Lawmakers also want to get legislation passed to both help encourage the growing hemp industry – which supplies products used in everything from clothing to food products. It is also used in the rapidly expanding – and in New York totally unregulated – CBD industry, whose products, sold seemingly everywhere in the state, are in oils, pills and other forms and used by people to self-treat themselves for anxiety, sleeping problems, pain and other ailments.

“They have no idea where it’s coming from and it’s everywhere," Savino said of CBD products.

Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, a Broome County Democrat who chairs the Assembly agriculture committee, said having at least a separate bill pass this session regulating the hemp extract industry is crucial at a time when so many CBD products are flooding the markets from other states and overseas.

“It’s essential for our consumers to have a very regulated hemp extract market,’’ she said Tuesday. Lupardo has legislation, supported by New York hemp growers and manufacturers, to require new labeling rules on products with additional new growing and manufacturing requirements.

Additionally, Lupardo’s bill would permit expansion of the marketplace to permit beverages made with CBD oils. “The big opportunity is coming with CBD in beverages and in food products. ... My stand-alone bill eases New York into it by allowing CBD beverages," she said.

With marijuana legalization in doubt, will New York take baby steps?

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