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Despite setback, advocates continue push to legalize recreational marijuana in NY

Brett Levin

Advocates of legalizing adult recreational marijuana said they plan to spend the next six months convincing state lawmakers to allow the drug to be sold and used in New York after a measure failed in the final days of the session. 

The bill was dropped when it became evident that the Democratic-led state Senate did not have the votes to pass legalization of marijuana. The Legislature instead approved a bill to further decriminalize the drug. Possession of up to 2 ounces of cannabis will now be considered a violation and will be subject to a $200 fine. Possession of 1 ounce or less will result in a $50 fine.

Kassandra Frederique with the Drug Policy Alliance said it's a poor substitute for legalization.

"It's disappointing," Frederique said. 

The Drug Policy Alliance said the decriminalization law won't do anything to fix racial disparities in marijuana arrests. Formerly incarcerated people will still face parole and probation violations for possession of cannabis. Anyone arrested with more than 2 ounces of marijuana can still face being separated from their children, or, if they are an immigrant, face possible deportation. 

Frederique said the final versions of the bill addressed many of the concerns of opponents and included funding for the hiring of drug recognition experts, who are law enforcement officers specially trained in recognizing the effects of anyone who is driving while impaired from marijuana use.

She also said the bill looked into buying and using special breathalyzers that could determine whether a driver had used cannabis. 

Frederique said while six Long Island Senate Democrats were not willing to vote for the measure, she said there were also Democratic senators from New York City and Westchester who were on the fence.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said it was a "mistake" not to legalize marijuana, said lawmakers would have been better off including the measure in the state budget, where they had the political cover of the gigantic state spending plan, instead of waiting until later in the session to tackle the issue. 

"I'm not going to say, 'I told you so,' " Cuomo said. "But I'm going to say everything but." 

The governor did not step in to try to change any minds in the Senate, even though the bill's sponsor, Sen. Liz Kruger, asked him to do so.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, on a tour of New York's North Country, said the Assembly's own internal polling showed that legalization was supported by state residents in the majority of lawmakers' districts, including those upstate. 

"Unfortunately, it didn't work out," Heastie said in Plattsburgh.  

Frederique said her group blames Cuomo, Heastie and Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins for not doing more in the final weeks of the session to pass the bill. 

"All three are to blame," she said. "But we also know that we have a governor, if he wants something to happen, he makes it happen."

She said advocates will continue to work during the off session, between now and January, to gain support so that the bill can pass in 2020.

"The criminalization of people does not take a six-month recess, and therefore the advocacy to end the criminalization of people will not rest," Frederique said.

Opponents say they will be working just as hard to make sure that New York does not legalize the drug.

In addition to decriminalizing smaller amounts of marijuana, the Senate and Assembly passed a measure to regulate the growing hemp industry in New York, as well as the sale of CBD products. But Cuomo has not committed to signing it into law, saying he needs to review the legislation first.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.