New York Moves Toward Legal Marijuana With Health Dept. Endorsement

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ALBANY — New York moved a significant step closer to legalizing recreational marijuana, as a study commissioned by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will recommend that the state allow adults to consume marijuana legally, the governor’s health commissioner said on Monday.

The announcement by the commissioner, Howard Zucker, signals a broad turnaround for the administration of Mr. Cuomo, a second-term Democrat who said as recently as last year that marijuana was a “gateway drug.”

“We looked at the pros, we looked at the cons, and when we were done, we realized that the pros outweighed the cons,” Dr. Zucker said, adding, “we have new facts.”

The findings of the report, which was initialized in January and has not been finalized, could pave the way for New York to join a roster of statesthat have already legalized the drug, including California, Colorado and Washington.

A senior administration official with knowledge of the governor’s thinking said on Monday that legalization efforts by New Jersey and Massachusetts had helped shift his thinking early this year. “It was no longer ‘if,’” the person said, “but ‘how.’”

Even with the governor’s support, the path to legalization in New York still faces legislative hurdles, as well as logistical questions. It would require the approval of the State Legislature, which is unlikely to take up the issue in its last days of session, which ends Wednesday.

If it were to be considered, the Republican-led Senate has signaled that it would be less receptive to legalizing marijuana than the Democratic-led Assembly. Still, Senate Democrats — who have expressed measured support of legal marijuana — stand only one seat short of capturing the majority, and the fall elections could leave them in charge.

Either way, the administration’s support of legal marijuana would give Mr. Cuomo a retort to critics of his past opposition as well as to his Democratic primary opponent, the actress Cynthia Nixon, who has already fully embraced the idea of legalization.

The report’s findings show that “New York has passed the point where this is a question,” said Kassandra Frederique, the New York State director at the Drug Policy Alliance.

What exactly such a program would look like in New York State is an open question; the state’s 2014 medical marijuana law, which came after more than 20 other states had established such programs, was heavily criticized during its early years for being too restrictive and ineffective, thoughchanges have since been made. But marijuana is still not allowed to be smoked in the medical program — the drug is available in oil forms, among others — a stipulation of Mr. Cuomo’s, who had insisted on strict controls.

Dr. Zucker said that the report on recreational usage was done in consultation with “experts from all across the government,” including specialists in public safety, public health, and economics, including taxation. He said that group had considered a wide range of issues — including the age of allowed use, impaired driving, and production and distribution — and concluded that legal marijuana could be done statewide.

Dr. Zucker made his remarks to reporters after making an announcement in Brooklyn regarding the finalizing of regulations to allow those using or abusing prescription opioids to qualify for the state’s medical marijuana program.

Mr. Cuomo has been saying that the report from the health department would be done for several weeks, but on Monday, his office said only that they would “review the report when we receive it.”

Dr. Zucker said the report would come out “soon,” adding that “the governor had charged me, over the years, with a lot of reports that he wanted me to put forward. And he knows I like to cross all my T’s and dot all my I’s.”

Ms. Nixon’s campaign seized on the news of the long-awaited report as a sign of the reactive nature of the Mr. Cuomo’s recent governance, which has included several efforts to appease voters on the left. Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Ms. Nixon’s campaign, said, “It shouldn’t have taken Cuomo eight years” and a challenge from Ms. Nixon “to understand the ‘facts have changed.’”

Ms. Nixon has made the issue a centerpiece of her insurgent campaign, framing the idea as a criminal justice reform, noting that smoking marijuana is “something that white people do with impunity,” while members of minority groups are disproportionately arrested and tried for possession and other drug crimes.

Ms. Hitt added that Ms. Nixon has also called for expunging people’s records of marijuana-related offenses. “We must go further,” Ms. Hitt said.

Lis Smith, a spokeswoman for the Cuomo campaign, shot back at Ms. Nixon, who is trailing Mr. Cuomo by a large margin. “The governor ordered this study in January,” she said. “Even if her campaign is in freefall, Cynthia Nixon doesn’t get to just make things up.”

Mr. Cuomo’s Republican opponent, Marcus Molinaro, also criticized Mr. Zucker’s announcement, saying the governor was “sprinting to the left” because of Ms. Nixon. “There are serious questions to be answered about marijuana,” said Katy Delgado, Mr. Molinaro’s spokeswoman. “They should be answered by serious people without a political agenda.”

Ms. Frederique, of the Drug Policy Alliance, said that any state policy on recreational marijuana should also address the fallout from its old policies, including New Yorkers who had suffered consequences in housing, employment, child care and immigration because they were tainted by a marijuana arrest.

“How are we going to center the communities most impacted?” Ms. Frederique asked. “And how are we going to repair the harm in a way that’s as comprehensive as the damage that was done?”

The commissioner’s comments come as the New York City mayor and police commissioner prepare to unveil a new marijuana enforcement policy on Tuesday after convening a 30-day working group to review the issue last month.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has directed the Police Department to come up with a policy to “end unnecessary arrests,” and the police commissioner, James P. O’Neill, has conceded that at least some arrests “have no impact on public safety.”

In New York City, black people were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at eight times the rate of white people over the last three years. The Police Department has blamed the disparity on complaints from residents about marijuana, but a New York Times analysis found that among neighborhoods where people called to complain about marijuana at the same rate, the police almost always made arrests at a higher rate in the area with more black residents.

By: Jesse McKinley and Benjamin Mueller, New York Times

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