Why Cuomo opened door, a bit, to medical marijuana in New York

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's shift on medical marijuana comes at the start of a reelection bid as progressives gain ground in a state known for its tough anti-pot enforcement.

Tim Roske/AP/File
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) speaks on decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana in public view during a news conference at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., in this file photo.

It may not be too surprising that New York, bluest of the blue, is finally beginning to inch towards a more liberal policy on pot.

But don’t let the state’s liberal bona fides mislead. In fact, New York has long been one of the most draconian drug law enforcers in the country – and New York City itself has been waging a weed-possession war for nearly 20 years. City cops arrest more people for having marijuana on them than they do for any other crime or misdemeanor, causing some to call the city the cannabis-arrest capital of the world.

Last week, however, in a political turnabout that surprised some observers, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) finally opened the door to dispense a limited amount of medicinal marijuana to those who suffer serious illnesses – something he has opposed in the past.

Using a long-forgotten provision in the state’s public health law, the governor is set to announce an executive action that would give 20 hospitals the ability to prescribe the pain-relieving, appetite-inducing drug. The tightly regulated process will be far more restrictive than those of most other newly marijuana-friendly states.

And interestingly, Governor Cuomo bypassed a divided state legislature to do it, and his office leaked the announcement less than a week before sources said he would – during Wednesday’s state of the state address, his last as he runs for reelection this November.

Despite the fact that states like Colorado and Washington have made pot the regulatory equivalent of booze, Cuomo’s repositioning during an election year may have deeper political ramifications, some observers say.

On the one hand, when New York’s infamous Rockefeller drug laws were passed in the 1970s, possession of just four ounces of marijuana could mean 15 years to life. The state did later decriminalize possession of less than 25 grams – an amount that fits in a small sandwich bag – but possession of over eight ounces is a felony.

“And so the history of those laws is a pretty powerful one, I think, in the state and in state politics,” says Matthew Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. “Maybe New York City is liberal on everything else, but they’ve been pretty tough on drugs.”

And it has gotten tougher over the last few decades. From 1981 to 1995, the New York City Police Department made less than 34,000 total arrests for the possession of marijuana – an average of about 2,300 per year. But since then, beginning with the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) and continuing under Michael Bloomberg, this number has simply skyrocketed. From 2002 to 2012 alone, there have been nearly 450,000 arrests for marijuana possession, including 50,684 in 2011 and more than 39,000 in 2012.

This history has, in many ways, held New York back from the country’s changing political pot winds – and Cuomo has always been a cautious politician, judging political landscapes carefully. But many of these have been changing in New York as well.

“I think given the new rise of progressivism in the Democratic Party – which was heralded with [Mayor Bill] De Blasio's overwhelming election – Cuomo, like others in the Democratic Party, feels that to win nationwide and in a state like NY you really do need to appeal to this increasingly active segment of the party,” e-mails Jeanne Zaino, professor of political campaign management at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

And even the stop-and-frisk controversy has changed the political discussion about marijuana. Though carrying less than 25 grams of marijuana is only a $100 fine, if it is in public view it becomes an arrestable misdemeanor. Over the last few years, New York City cops have exploited this loophole, arresting people for an open display of pot after telling those they stopped to empty their pockets – and vast majority of these marijuana-possession arrests have been black and Hispanic men.

After lobbying from activists, Cuomo acknowledged this in last year’s state of the state address and called for decriminalizing possession and public view of 15 grams of pot or less. “These arrests stigmatize, they criminalize, they create a permanent record. It’s not fair, it’s not right, it must end, and it must end now,” he said.

This week’s executive move on medical marijuana will help to solidify a more and more active progressive constituency, political experts say.

“I think this helps with his liberal base, because there are lot of left-leaning Democrats who have been very disappointed with him and his stance on fracking,” the natural gas extraction method that environmental activists are fighting upstate, says Christina Greer, a professor of urban politics at Fordham University in New York.

At the same time, opinion polls show that the vast majority of New Yorkers support easing restrictions on medical marijuana. 

“My take is he is taking this fairly limited step on medical marijuana because this is a fairly popular position with most voters, particularly the all important Democratic voters in NY and those who might vote in the 2016 primaries,” e-mails Ms. Zaino. “So I think its fair to say he has his upcoming reelection and a potential [presidential] run in 2016 on his mind.”

[Editor's note: The original version of this story used the wrong unit of measurement in discussing the amount of marijuana that has been decriminalized in New York.]

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