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Meet the Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Who Wants to Legalize Weed in New York

Joel Giambra is betting on promises of legal marijuana to win the election and update the Republican party.

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Image via WGRZ-TV

Former Erie County executive Joel Giambra is running for governor on the platform to legalize marijuana in New York. He thinks revenue from legal pot is the answer to improving New York infrastructure, including the subway, roads, and bridges throughout the state.

As a Republican, Giambra is up against not only more conservative members of his own party, but a statewide majority of Democrats. His campaign promise to legalize weed would also be dependent on a rather conservative state legislature. While New York's State Assembly has been open to marijuana law reform — with Assemblyman and Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried as the cannabis cheerleader — the Senate has shown to be more difficult with getting legislation through. Slowly but surely, Gottfried has been working to expand the state's medical marijuana program, which went into effect two years ago, while Senator Liz Krueger has championed a full legalization bill over the past several years.

While cannabis legalization in New York has been generally thought to be only a distant fantasy, imminent or current programs to legalize it in New Jersey, Vermont, Massachusetts, and other neighboring states makes pot prohibition an increasingly untenable policy in the Empire State.

With a concrete majority of Americans in favor of reforming marijuana laws, it’s no longer a fringe issue, in New York, nor anywhere else (as we've seen with the election of Phil Murphy in New Jersey, for example), and Giambra is banking on that to prevail in the gubernatorial election. We recently spoke with the candidate to learn more about his campaign, and what he’ll do if he wins.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MERRY JANE: Can you tell me about your background in politics?

Joel Giambra: I was in elected office for 25 years in the Buffalo area. I held various positions, from city council member at the age of 24 when I was first elected, city of Buffalo comptroller, and my last position was Erie County executive.

How did you get involved with the New York Grows initiative?

A year ago, I started some collaboration with friends. We started New York Grows as an educational effort to educate people on why prohibition is not an effective policy. The website is designed to provide educational information and allow people to get involved on a grassroots level by signing petitions to the governor and their state representatives, all with the purpose of educating and beginning to promote the ending of prohibition.

And so now you're running for governor?

Recently I decided I've got a great desire to go back into public policy arena. I've decided to pursue the Republican nomination for governor.

How do you think your involvement in cannabis could help or hurt your campaign?

I think it will help because most people in New York state believe prohibition is a stale public policy, and, while this a very important part of my agenda as I begin to expand the base of the Republican party in New York state, I think this issue along with other issues we've been talking about will allow me to identify with the 18 to 35-year-old constituency that is looking for a place to feel comfortable politically. I owe millennials, my children, lock stock and barrel. I believe that generation is very much willing to consider the Republican party because they're a conservative generation when it comes to fiscal matters and very moderate when it comes to social issues. That's exactly where I see myself — as a very moderate Republican with a big tent philosophy.

What about appealing to older Republicans?

I think the majority of people believe that it makes no sense to continue to ignore that marijuana is part of our culture. It's the largest crop in the country that's being grown right now and it has potential for a large industry. And that's why I believe that ending the black market economy, and controlling and regulating marijuana, makes a lot more sense than the unregulated criminal environment that exists.

So you think cannabis is a mainstream political issue?

I think it's becoming mainstream. With New Jersey [almost] having adult-use, and Massachusetts this year also, and then Canada, New York state is surrounded by entities that understand that prohibition doesn't work, and are looking to monetize revenues from this industry.

Will marijuana legalization be one of the main components of your campaign platform?

Absolutely. It's a big piece of our platform and our agenda moving forward. It's right up there with campaign finance reform.

We recently wrote about Phil Murphy's gubernatorial campaign promise to legalize marijuana. So like him, if you win, how will you get it through the state legislature?

There are two bills pending: one in the Assembly, one in the Senate. The assembly already held some hearings last week, so it is on the agenda for consideration during this legislative session. I'm hoping the legislature will pass it and the governor to sign it...but I don't understand why he's so intent on perpetuating a black market underground economy. If I were elected, I hopefully would be able to get the legislature to move on this bill. I'd like to see a tightly regulated and restricted adult-use piece of legislation.

Have you been lobbying the legislature through NY Grows? Do you have relationships with lawmakers?

Before I resigned my position a month ago, I was a lobbyist. One of my clients was in the marijuana industry — one of the licensed growers and distributors in New York state. I was involved in promoting the end of prohibition based on our client's desire and my personal belief.

So your professional background is in lobbying?

After I left the government in 2007, I went to work for consulting [and] lobbying firm Park Strategies.

Going forward on your campaign, who will be your greatest opposition?

Traditional Republicans who would like to see someone more conservative than I am. But I am who I am. I'm a Republican who believes we should be inclusive of different philosophies and walks of life. I'm a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage Republican, and I think that makes sense for the future of the party. 

You also have the challenge of being elected in a mostly Democratic state...

I'm up against a state that has huge Democratic overlay. It's a challenge that I'm ready for. I know that ending prohibition is going to be [our] campaign platform, and finance reform. When elected officials can amass $30 million, it's obvious to me there's a conscious pay-to-play effort to raise money, which is why there's a criminal investigation taking place. It's what I call "the incumbent protection plan," and that raises challenges for anyone else thinking of running. So I'm looking to level the playing field, so people who want to run for office have a legitimate chance.

New York’s next gubernatorial election will take place on November 6, 2018.