Marijuana Legalization Flounders in New York, New Jersey

By Kelly Burch 05/17/19

“People are talking about [legalization] less. There is no sense of urgency,” says one drug policy expert.  

Hands holding marijuana leaves in support of marijuana legalization in New York, New Jersey

In the beginning of 2019 it seemed almost certain that New York and New Jersey would soon legalize cannabis, allowing people in and around America’s largest city to use the the drug recreationally.

But just five months into the year legalization efforts in both states are floundering. 

“People are talking about it less,” Kassandra Frederique, director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York, told The New York Times. “There is no sense of urgency.” 

New York and New Jersey are among the first states to try to legislate a recreational marijuana marketplace. Vermont is the only state thus far to legalize cannabis through legislative action, but it does not have a marketplace, instead allowing cannabis to be grown for personal use. 

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo wanted marijuana legalization included in the state’s budget that was passed in April, but that effort broke down. The proposal faced opposition from minority legislators who were not satisfied with the bill’s social justice components. 

However, the New York Times reported this week that the governor was the one who ultimately backed away from pushing legalization through the budget because he feared the political consequences. 

“The governor walked away from it in the budget,” Senator Liz Krueger said. 

Yet Cuomo insisted that the legislature was to blame. 

“The facts as reported are the leaders said they don't want to pass marijuana in the budget,” he said. 

Krueger said that the state lawmakers are still divided about how funds from cannabis should be spent, and specifically how much of those funds should be earmarked for communities that have been disproportionately affected by marijuana prohibition. 

She said, “Day 1, when we started to draft this bill, I told everyone the ultimate fight would be over the money and who gets it. And the last day that we come to closure and sign a bill, I will tell people the fight was over where the money went.”

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy cancelled a vote on legalization in March when it became clear that the measure would not pass. He later issued an ultimatum to lawmakers giving them until the end of May to pass legalization, or he would expand the state’s medical marijuana program by executive order.

Last week, he said that New Jersey may end up allowing voters to decide directly about legalizing recreational marijuana. 

“The referendum has always been out there as an option,” he said at a press conference on Thursday (May 9). “Only one state has done this legislatively and that's Vermont. We have felt that this is a better way to go. It takes more courage, it’s a tough vote for many, and we understand that.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.