NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 10: A day before the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo talks with reporters before marching in the New York Labor Day Parade in Midtown Manhattan September 10, 2011 in New York City. The annual parade featured local and state politicians and union workers from the private and public sectors. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
New York gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill to expedite medical marijuana access for critically ill patients in New York before the state’s full medical marijuana program rolls out.
Cuomo’s signature came just hours before a midnight deadline and followed months of pressure from patients, families and supporters pushing for the Governor to sign the emergency access bill. Advocates say the bill is a necessary measure for critically ill patients who cannot wait any longer to receive medical cannabis treatment.
New York’s medical cannabis program is expected to be fully operational by January 2016, according to New York Health Department officials.
The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), introduced by Manhattan senator Liz Krueger in December 2013 and sponsored in the state assembly by Crystal Peoples-Stokes, would end New York’s prohibition on marijuana and treat it similarly to alcohol. The bill would legalize the production, use, and distribution of marijuana for adults 21 and older.
In 2014, 86 percent of those arrested for marijuana violations were black or Latino, while only 10 percent were white. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the NYPD arrests blacks at seven times and Latinos at four times the rate of whites. In New York City, the neighborhoods with the highest marijuana arrest rates were Washington Heights and East Harlem, while the lowest was the Upper East Side, which is 90 percent white. Of those arrested for possession of marijuana, 77 percent were between the ages of 16 and 34.
“Marijuana prohibition has failed, and it has done so at tremendous cost to our communities,” says Senator Krueger. “Allowing personal use, with appropriate regulation and taxation, will end the heavily racialized enforcement that disproportionately impacts African-American and Latino New Yorkers.”
The law aims to close off the existing underground criminal marketplace to allow police to divert their resources to the areas that need them most. “[The MRTA law] is the kind of win-win that our communities desperately need,” Krueger says.
Though the bill has thus far gained little traction in Albany, a conversation has begun about the real collateral consequences of prohibition, according to Kassandra Frederique, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance. “It’s great that Liz Krueger and Crystal Peoples-Stokes have taken this on and [are] putting racial and economic justice at the forefront,” she says. “While the issue of medical marijuana pushed many more people to care about cannabis policy, adult-use marijuana will benefit more people.” She’s hopeful that the issue of recreational cannabis will create “the kind of groundswell necessary to get it from a fringe issue to a serious issue.”
But for any adult-use law to pass, there needs to be political will in the legislature, something that has confounded recreational advocates for years. Unlike in other states that have already legalized recreational marijuana through ballot initiatives, in New York only legislators have the power to change the law. New Yorkers will have to lean on their elected officials, Frederique says. “I think for better and for worse, we have a lot of cautious legislators who can sometimes lean on the wait-and-see approach,” she offers, referring mainly to New York’s more conservative senate. “For marijuana legislation in New York, that’s not an appropriate way to look at it. It’s not about wait-and-see, it’s about starting to restore the communities that have been devastated by marijuana prohibition.”