Photos via MTANYC

As the date of the New York Democratic primary election draws near, Gov. Andrew Cuomo traded barbs with challenger and former Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon in a gubernatorial debate that touched on issues of corruption, experience, and legal cannabis. During his previous two terms as governor, Cuomo has opposed any attempts to legalize pot in the Empire State, but ever since Nixon announced that pot legalization was a major part of her political platform, the incumbent began changing his tune on marijuana.

Cuomo referred to cannabis as a “gateway drug” as recently as last year, as Nixon pointed out at the debate. But as support for his competitor grew, the governor began to accept the inevitability of marijuana legalization, and directed the state Department of Health to research the issue. At the debate, Cuomo noted that the resulting report was strongly in favor of legal marijuana, and said he now believed “that the benefits [of legalization] outweigh the risks.”

Nixon said that legalization would help address the social justice dilemma created by decades of prohibition laws being disproportionately enforced against communities of color. Nixon argued that the state needs to “prioritize the individuals and the communities that have been most harmed by the war on drugs,” and promised to use pot tax revenue to fund efforts to right historical wrongs. 

“I don’t think racial injustice starts with marijuana,” Cuomo countered, arguing that lack of housing and job opportunities are “where the racial injustice starts,” Marijuana Moment reports. Cuomo has formed a legislative group to draft a cannabis legalization bill, but it is uncertain what this legislation might do to address unequal enforcement of cannabis laws.

Pressure from his popular opponent may be largely responsible for Cuomo's sudden acceptance of legal weed, but the governor's head may also have been turned by direct financial support from the cannabis industry. Cannabis Wire reports that the incumbent governor received $65,000 from a private investment fund created by MedMen, a national cannabis retailer with a stake in New York’s medical marijuana industry. MedMen also kicked another $50,000 to Cuomo via a non-profit Christian mission, and Cuomo accepted another $25,000 from Nicholas Vita, CEO of Columbia Care, another New York medical cannabis firm.

On the other hand, despite her support for legal weed, Nixon has reportedly been refusing to accept donations from the cannabis industry, or any political action committee or corporation, for that matter. In April, the candidate added an option on her donation site allowing supporters of legalization to donate a recurring $4.20 a month to her campaign. Since then, 1,631 commitments have been made in this amount. Cuomo still challenged Nixon over her personal finances, noting that she has been routing her income through an S corporation “loophole,” and comparing her to President Trump over the fact that she has not released all of her personal tax records.

Corruption was also a major issue in the debate, with Nixon calling the current governor a “corrupt corporate Democrat” over his ties with several top state officials who have recently been convicted on corruption charges. Cuomo took issue with the actress’ lack of experience in public office, arguing that she would not be prepared to handle incidents of natural disaster or terrorism. “Experience doesn’t mean that much if you’re not actually good at governing,” Nixon countered, according to the New York Times. The candidates also clashed over the funding of New York City's antiquated public transit system.

Regardless of who wins on September 13th, it is a good sign to see that cannabis reform has become such an important issue in a state that has been slow to accept the prospect of legal pot.