Norman Birenbaum, New York’s new director of cannabis programs, talked with New York State Editor Joseph Spector on Feb. 26, 2020 to discuss his role and the state’s move toward legalizing marijuana.
New York State Team
This is part of a Syracuse University student-driven reporting project through the NewsHouse website that is being published in USA TODAY Network. It takes a deep look at marijuana issues in New York as the state’s drug laws remain in flux.
Count legal marijuana in New York among the victims of COVID-19, along with the hundreds of millions in tax dollars and thousands of jobs legalization might have generated.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on the last day of March that the state’s spring legislative session was “effectively over” after several state lawmakers tested positive for the coronavirus.
They came back in June to address COVID-related issues, but didn’t address other outstanding issues.
Among the unfinished items Cuomo said would have to wait until next year was the legalization of marijuana for adult recreational use. Of the eight other states that were poised to legalize pot this year, only three appeared on track for legal weed in 2020.
Cuomo’s pronouncement of legalization’s demise was a turn of events given that, just a few weeks earlier, New York appeared all but certain to legalize marijuana as a way of raising revenue, lowering incarceration rates and getting a piece of a rapidly growing business sector.
Cuomo himself vowed to make legalization a priority during his State of the State address in January.
And although some opposition still remains in the state and a similar effort failed in 2019, people across New York expressed support for Cuomo’s plan.
In Januar,y, a Siena College survey of New York registered voters found that 58% supported legalization.
Meanwhile a less-scientific NewsHouse poll of more than 250 New York college students found that more than 91% favored legalization.
The NewsHouse also reached out to New York state lawmakers in March.
Of the 20 who responded, five were against legalization, one undecided and 14 were in favo,
“It makes no sense to me that cannabis and alcohol are treated differently under the law when cannabis poses less health risks than alcohol, is less addictive and there is no empirical evidence suggesting that marijuana is a ‘gateway drug’ to other types of drug use,” said state Sen. Jen Metzger, D-Rosendale, Ulster County.
How COVID-19 derailed legal marijuana in NY
With so much support, what went wrong? The culprit appears to be the same thing upending life everywhere – the COVID-19 pandemic.
State Sen. Luis Sepúlveda, D-Bronx, has been a strident supporter of legalization. Yet he acknowledged that COVID-19 made a proper policy discussion about legalization impossible for now.
Eventually, he thinks marijuana will be legal for adult recreational use in New York. The coronavirus may have slowed that effort, but it has also made it more certain than ever, he said.
“Ultimately, when the storm settles, we are going to have to deal with it one way or another,” Sepúlveda said.
“We are going to pass some form of legalization, and you know what, when you consider the incredible deficits that we are going to have as a result of corona, all revenue streams are going to have to be considered … including gambling, online gambling and things of that nature,” he added.
What college students say about NY’s legal weed odds
Syracuse University policy studies freshman Lexi Whitcomb worries the opposite might be true.
“It has been seen as an evil,” the Connecticut native said of marijuana. “And I know a lot of lawmakers are older. So if they have that traditional view about it, they might be still thinking about that and the effects of it being negative as a drug.”
Whitcomb supports legalization and agrees with Sepúlveda that the economy will need a boost after COVID, as does freshman Allison Boschetti of New Jersey.
“Right now, the coronavirus pandemic is taking a huge toll on our economy, and the legalization of marijuana could help to build up our economy again,” said Boschetti, who studies public relations.
She added that it’s “foolish to delay this when legalization will inevitably happen.”
But more than economics, Boschetti supports legalization as a social justice issue, citing the toll the war on drugs has taken on urban and minority communities — an argument made by many lawmakers in support of the law.
Economics senior Luis Solano supports legalization but said it was a smart decision to delay in the light of the COVID outbreak so the state could focus on stopping the virus.
In his home state of California, Solano said having weed legal has been a benefit.
“People are definitely less on edge about buying marijuana,” he said. He added that marijuana is “one less thing for law enforcement to worry about,” although he said regulation of driving under the influence is a problem.
New Yorker Dashawn Austin, a marketing and advertising student, said he supports legalization and is understanding of the delay. “I just don’t want it to slip through the cracks,” he added.
But Austin thought legalization might affect campus culture, hoping that university police would worry about it less.
“I don’t think that marijuana should still be illegal,” said Haley Francois, a first-year accounting from Scotia, New York.
“So if a politician thought it should stay illegal, I wouldn’t vote for them.”
Andrew Benbenek, Sydney Bergan, Elijah Brown, Mallory Carlson, Cameron Ezeir, Talia Gerardi, Porter Holt, Emily Karp, Owen Mitchell, Eleanor Quarles and Morgan Wood contributed to this report.
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