Photo via MTA of NY
Although New York is often considered one of the most socially progressive states in the nation, the Empire State has been lagging far behind on the issue of cannabis reform. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and a majority of state legislators have consistently shot down the idea of full legalization, and the state has only managed to pass a limited medical cannabis program to date. Times are changing, however, and now that Cuomo is fighting for re-election against several pro-legalization opponents, his position is starting to shift.
This week, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James announced that she supports full marijuana legalization, and added that she would work with Gov. Cuomo to accomplish this feat by the end of this year. James said that she decided to publicly support legalization in order to put an end to racially-biased enforcement of marijuana laws.
Last year, nearly 86% of individuals arrested in New York City for possessing two or fewer ounces of pot were minorities. The total number of people arrested for low-level cannabis possession has been on the rise in the city since 2016, even though minor pot possession was decriminalized in 2014.
“In this country, we often talk about our fight against the War on Drugs, but the sad truth is that this War on Drugs too often is a war on people of color, a war on poor Americans, a war on marginalized groups, a war on certain ethnic groups,” James said in a press conference reported by The Observer.
“These are young men of color—mostly men—who are subjected to a criminal justice system for behavior… that is oftentimes overlooked, ignored or in some cases accepted in some other communities,” James added. She also noted that even though cannabis possession is a “relatively low-level offense,” these offenses remain on one's criminal record for life, which can interfere with vocational, educational, and housing opportunities.
Former Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon, who is running as a Democratic candidate for governor this year, and Joel Giambra, an independent candidate, have both made marijuana legalization a major element of their campaign platforms. Like James, both of these candidates have cited the racial injustice brought on by years of disproportionately enforced prohibition laws as a major reason to support cannabis reform.
With support for legalization pressing in from all sides, Cuomo has slowly begun to change his stance on the matter. “The facts have changed,” Cuomo said to the NY Post. “You have states that have legalized it now… It is no longer a question of legal or illegal. It’s legal in Massachusetts. It may be legal in New Jersey. Which means for all intents and purposes it’s going to be here anyway.”
Gov. Cuomo has even gone so far as to suggest that the Empire State has a more proactive stance on cannabis than surrounding states. In a recent radio interview, Cuomo was asked whether New York was falling behind neighboring states like Massachusetts and New Jersey that are enacting or actively working on legalization. "No, I think we’re actually ahead on it," the governor responded, according to PolitiFact New York. "We announced months ago that we were going to study the legalization issue precisely for that reason."
Regardless of the governor's opinion, it remains clear that New York is falling behind neighboring states when it comes to cannabis reform. Queens Councilman Donovan Richards noted the irony that even former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, once a vocal opponent of marijuana, now has a more liberal stance on pot than many New York politicians.
“It’s a weird time when New York City finds itself to the right of former House Speaker John Boehner, but unfortunately that is where we are and this is why we are here today,” Richards said to The Observer. “Over 17,000 black and brown people arrested or issued summonses on low-level marijuana offenses in what we’ve called the most progressive city and state in the country. It’s a disgrace and the damage has been done.”