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Marijuana legalization wars kick off this week in Albany

ALBANY – Shortly before efforts to legalize marijuana failed in the State Senate last June, the measure’s sponsor made a dire prediction: The issue would be dead in 2020.

State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, believed then that lawmakers would fear taking on such a controversial issue in an election year.

“I’ve changed my mind,’’ Krueger said last week.

The author of the Senate bill, Krueger believes election-year politics are no longer the threat she thought they'd be. Now, she and other lawmakers believe the plan has a better chance of getting approved in the coming months than at any point in 2019.

On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will present his 2020 state budget plan, a document in which he will also lay out his latest proposal for permitting the cultivation, distribution, sale and use of marijuana in New York.

Much of its contents are expected to mirror plans from last year, and there will still be much tussling over some of specifics. Among the top: how will the state spend the roughly $300 million in projected annual marijuana tax revenue.

There is already rising confidence among marijuana legalization supporters that this is their year, though a broad range of health, law enforcement and other opponents are now engaging to defeat the push again.

A visit to the Berkshires

Last year, legalization had support in the Democratic-run Assembly. But it stalled in the Senate in June over concerns raised by suburban New York City Democrats on Long Island and Westchester County.

Some were firmly opposed and some, such as freshman State Sen. Peter Harckham, wanted efforts to slow down.

Harckham, a Westchester County Democrat who represents parts of three suburban New York counties, last summer visited two communities in western Massachusetts, home to some of the commonwealth’s newest government-regulated stores that sell cannabis products from buds to gummy bears. Harckham talked to operators, to health care and law enforcement officials and to people in public schools. He saw the parking lots filled with cars – most license plates were from New York State, which has seen thousands of people cross state lines to buy marijuana.

Since that visit, Harckham has done more research, and his views have morphed. In an interview last week, he said he’s no longer in the slow-things-down side of the debate. He came away from Massachusetts, where voters legalized marijuana in 2016, with a key observation: “The sky is not falling," he said.

On marijuana legalization this year in Albany, Harckham said: “I’m certainly in a better place.’’ He added: “The reality is you can buy marijuana anywhere in the state, in any high school. The private market has won, so we should be regulating this and getting the tax revenue."

[RELATED: Here's what held up the legalizing of marijuana in New York State]

Harckham’s support is significant because he is the chairman of the Senate’s alcoholism and substance abuse committee. He said Krueger has heavily amended her marijuana bill to secure backing from him and other senators; he said one change would give a “tremendous shot in the arm” to woefully underfunded substance abuse education, prevention and treatment programs by dedicating 25% of marijuana tax proceeds to such efforts.

Not all opponents or those sitting on the fence in the Senate have seen their concerns assuaged, making legalization still not a done deal for 2020.

Sen. Monica Martinez, a Democrat, represents the far eastern end of Long Island. A former educator, she has heard concerns about legalization from school officials, students and parents. If it came for a vote today, she would vote no, in part, because of what she witnesses as the drug’s effect on teens.

“I just think it’s a little bit hypocritical that we’re trying to fight an opioid epidemic but at the same time trying to legalize a drug," she said of marijuana. Instead, if New York wants to legalize it, officials should hold a statewide referendum, as they did in 2013 for casino gambling.

“It’s an issue that should be in the hands of our voters," the Suffolk County lawmaker said.

2020 versus 2019

Only two years after dismissing legalization efforts and calling marijuana a “gateway drug," Cuomo jumped on the legalization bandwagon in 2019. He proposed a massive and complex regulatory and taxing scheme, guiding everything from the licensing of marijuana farms to rules for new smoking lounges.

But the effort faced organized opposition, led by law enforcement and health groups, the state PTA and a number of moderate lawmakers; especially nervous were new or relatively new Democratic senators from districts previously held by Republican senators.

[RELATED: Here's how a legalization program has worked out in Oakland, Calif.]

In the end, two things killed the 2019 effort: a split within the Senate Democratic conference and an uneasiness by legalization proponents, including Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, over Cuomo’s refusal to guarantee that a large portion of the drug’s tax revenues would be steered to low-income communities hit hardest by decades of marijuana arrests.

“I’ve been most concerned about that," Peoples-Stokes said last week. The sponsor of marijuana legalization in the Assembly, Peoples-Stokes recently met with Cuomo advisers to explain “in detail” why the revenue component she wants is so crucial. “I think they get it," she said of the Cuomo administration. Whether that means Cuomo will embrace it in his budget plan won’t be known until Tuesday.

Cuomo's office declined comment in advance of the budget release on Tuesday.

'Momentum is there'

Krueger believes a key thing is playing out in 2020. “The governor is clearly much more interested this year than he was last year," she said.

Last June, Krueger criticized Cuomo for not getting involved in efforts to convince fence-sitting Senate Democrats to back legalization. Cuomo has since met with neighboring governors to seek a consensus on legalization laws for the region. Today, he is “much more comfortable” with legalization, said Krueger, who is the influential chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee.

But would Cuomo jump in this year to move reluctant Democrats? “Yes, my gut tells me he will," Krueger said.

One way is if he jams the policy matter into the state’s budget. If shoved into budget bills, political cover is created for those who might not support legalization but can’t afford to vote no for a budget that contains everything from public school financing to popular health programs.

What’s driving the legalization optimism in Albany? Part of it is public opinion polling. Part of it is the decriminalization law passed last year when legalization failed. Part of it is the widespread market for CBD products, which are produced from hemp plants but don’t contain the ingredients to get people high. And part of it is legalization efforts that have occurred elsewhere, like Massachusetts.

“The momentum is there and it’s pretty fast and furious," Krueger said of 2020 legalization. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat, recently said she believes legalization is “inevitable," though she added more work is needed.

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Foes ramping up for fight

Opponents are not sitting by. Several groups involved in last year’s battle held a conference call Tuesday to discuss strategy, and there is talk of a renewed focus on health concerns and problems – such as driving while high arrests and accidents – seen in some states that have legalized the drug.

Critics also wonder why the state is looking to ban flavored vaping products for adults at the same time it wants to legalize marijuana. And they note the dangers of marijuana were brought out in full display by the rash of lung-related illnesses and deaths across the nation among people who used THC-containing e-cigarettes, obtained in the vast majority of cases through what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “informal” sources, such as drug dealers or friends. Fifty-seven deaths have been attributed to the outbreak.

“I don’t understand why they would want to move forward with legalization," said Kyle Belokopitsky, executive director of the New York State PTA, of the vaping crisis that emerged nationwide over the summer.

There is a “disconnect” between state public health efforts to crack down on vaping and tobacco products while at the same time legalizing marijuana, critics say. Moreover, it’s an election year, and Albany already is facing sticky fights over everything from tax hikes for the wealthy to to whether to change a controversial new cash bail law.

“I would agree they are excited," said Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan, a Suffolk County Republican, of Democrats’ push for marijuana this year. “But they are wrong."

The state went too far last year, he believes, in decriminalizing possession of marijuana, making it a violation and not a crime to possess up to 2 ounces of the drug. “This is a massive, sweeping change that’s not being properly paid attention to," Flanagan said of the legalization push.

Backers 'cautiously optimistic'

Marijuana proponents say the issue has been studied and debated and that legalization will bring thousands of jobs – in the form of retail, agriculture and other sectors – as well as $300 million in annual tax revenue to New York once implemented.

Moreover, these backers believe the vaping crisis that hit states beginning last summer proves their point: that legalization will bring safer marijuana products, regulated by the state, to the marketplace and not be spiked with any range of fillers and other unknown ingredients.

“Consumers need to know what they’re getting," said Melissa Moore, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York office.

Moore said conversations with lawmakers and Cuomo advisers continued after 2019 session’s end last June.

Proponents also know an Albany truism: Seldom do major policy ideas get approved in one year. For-profit companies that produce and distribute medical marijuana products in New York, which is already legal, are better coordinated in 2020 to lobby with pro-legalization groups in Albany, advocates say.

“I’m cautiously optimistic," Moore said of legalization this session.

Those split on the issue could agree on one thing for the coming months in Albany. “It’s going to be a fight," said Belokopitsky, the PTA leader.

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