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Cuomo hires Rhode Island official as marijuana czar

ALBANY – Among the 15 new hires announced Monday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, one stood out for stakeholders in the marijuana legalization battle: a person to head a new office of cannabis programs.

The hiring of Norman Birenbaum, who was a major force in pro-legalization efforts for the Rhode Island governor, is being taken by some officials as a sign Cuomo will push – perhaps more forcefully – efforts to legalize the drug in the coming 2020 session.

The appointment of Birenbaum was made public Monday in a release from Cuomo's office announcing other recent senior-level administration hires.

Cuomo last year proposed to create a separate office to run all things related to marijuana legalization – including setting the price of the drug and who gets to grow and sell it. Talks fizzled, however, and the effort died when not enough support could be found among Democrats who now control the State Senate.

While people opposed to and supportive of marijuana legalization already know the issue will come before lawmakers in some form in 2020, it had been believed that next year – an election year for all state lawmakers – could be an even more politically dubious time to get the controversial drug legalization through the Legislature.

Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Cuomo, noted that the state already has an industrial hemp program and the governor recently signed legislation that will regulate all forms of hemp and hemp extracts – such as the exploding CBD marketplace. But the hiring of Birenbaum, who will work out of Cuomo’s executive chamber, also shows the marijuana legislation issue will again be on the front burner in Albany next year.

Birenbaum oversaw industrial hemp and medical marijuana programs in Rhode Island and worked for that state’s governor on recreational legalization efforts.

“The governor has made it very clear that legalizing adult-use cannabis is a priority for next year and will be part of the agenda," Azzopardi said.

The salary for Birenbaum was not immediately available.

Lawmakers who have advanced the marijuana efforts took notice of the new appointment.

“The governor announcing the hiring of added staff to help move New York State forward toward a full legalization model is a clear signal the Legislature will have a partner on these issues in 2020,” said State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat and sponsor of the marijuana legalization bill in the Senate.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, noted the many obvious differences between Rhode Island and a state with so many urban areas like New York, but she took it as a potentially good sign for the legalization efforts in 2020.

"It should be encouraging to people who are skeptical about whether or not (the governor) is going to move forward with adult recreational use,'' said Peoples-Stokes, the sponsor of the marijuana legalization bill in the Assembly.

While Birenbaum will play a role in helping to advance the legalization effort as well as being part of hemp industry oversight, the state Department of Health will still run New York’s medical marijuana program, which is available for people suffering from certain ailments. Birenbaum will advise health officials, however, on various policies relating to medical marijuana, officials said.

Melissa Moore, New York State deputy director for the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the chief advocacy groups pressing for marijuana legalization, believes the new hire by Cuomo "is an encouraging move" because, in part, it is coming as Cuomo is putting together the final details on his policy and fiscal agenda for 2020. Bringing Birenbaum on board, as well as Cuomo hosting a gathering on marijuana issues with three other Northeast governors in October, "signals a different level of engagement going into this session,'' she said.

"It does seem the governor is prepared to be a leader in this realm,'' Moore added of legalization efforts.

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