By Jimmy Vielkind 

Proponents of legalizing recreational marijuana in New York are putting their weight behind a bill in the state legislature, saying they prefer it to the competing framework that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has included as part of his proposed $193 billion budget.

Associations representing growers and medical marijuana companies that operate in the state as well as the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports legalizing the drug for social-justice reasons, issued a rare joint statement in support of the pending Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, or MRTA.

Their focus comes as the Democratic governor grapples with federal inquiries into the state's handling of Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes and accusations that he sexually harassed two former female aides.

Mr. Cuomo's spokeswoman has denied a claim detailed Wednesday by Lindsey Boylan, who worked for the state from 2015 to 2018. The governor said in a Saturday night statement that he never acted inappropriately toward Charlotte Bennett, a 25-year-old former aide who said Mr. Cuomo asked questions about her sex life that made her uncomfortable. On Sunday, Mr. Cuomo said he was sorry his actions had been interpreted as unwanted flirtation.

State lawmakers have spent the past two weeks considering ways to be more assertive over matters of policy, which Mr. Cuomo has dominated since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic a year ago. The course they choose could have consequences on the contours of marijuana legalization in the state.

"This is really a question of whether the Legislature will stand up to the governor, use the power which it has in this moment, and fight for just and equitable policies," said Jeremy Saunders, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY, a grass-roots lobbying organization that supports legalizing marijuana.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia allow recreational use of the drug, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation setting marijuana regulations last week.

Mr. Cuomo announced his support for legalizing marijuana during his 2018 re-election campaign, and the Democratic leaders of the state Legislature have also said they want to enact a law legalizing the drug this year. Lawmakers said they want to use revenue from taxing the drug to help fill a projected deficit. They must adopt a budget before the state's fiscal year ends on March 31.

Opponents of legalizing marijuana -- including many Republican lawmakers and the New York State PTA -- say a new law would lead to more use by students and higher-potency products. But the bigger hang-up has been among Democratic lawmakers, who since 2019 haven't been able to agree on how to handle revenue generated by legalization and legislative input on how cannabis is regulated.

The MRTA dedicates a fixed percentage of revenue to a social-equity fund designated for use in Black and brown communities that were disproportionately affected by marijuana criminalization, its sponsors said.

The bill would give legislators two appointees to a board that would oversee cannabis policy. Mr. Cuomo's proposal would set aside fixed dollar amounts for social-equity funding and give the executive total control of the policy board. The governor amended his proposal in February to allow for delivery services, which were already permitted in the MRTA.

"As the governor said, we believe that if marijuana doesn't get in the budget, it won't get done," Rich Azzopardi, a senior adviser to the governor, said. "The ultimate program will be subject to negotiations with the legislature."

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat from Buffalo who sponsors the MRTA, said she wants to see it enacted on its own and wasn't satisfied with the governor's amendments.

"People think folks will vote for it because it is a part of the budget, but I think it will pass anyway," she said. "It's a real possibility that something could happen in the next couple of weeks, prior to the budget."

A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat from the Bronx, said his conference was having productive discussions about marijuana. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat from Yonkers, said members were talking about voting on the MRTA before the budget but no decision had been made.

Ngiste Abebe, president of the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group, said New York lawmakers should approve the MRTA quickly so New Jersey doesn't get a jump on sales.

"Time is of the essence," Ms. Abebe said.

THE QUESTION: I recently had breakfast at the last Howard Johnson's restaurant operating in the U.S. Where in New York was I?

-- Know the answer? Write me an email!

THE LAST ANSWER: The last New York governor to be impeached was William Sulzer, who was removed from office in 1913.

Write to Jimmy Vielkind at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 28, 2021 19:14 ET (00:14 GMT)

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