New York State's Long-Running War on Weed

Louisa Bertman
Despite Andrew Cuomo's promises, the end might not be near.
A U.S. map that shows where pot is legal looks a lot like recent electoral college maps, except instead of blue, the liberal states are rendered in green: the entire West Coast (California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada), progressive mountain and Midwest states (Colorado, New Mexico; Michigan, Illinois), all of New England, plus New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws legalizing medical marijuana; in two of them, recreational weed is all good, too.

Conspicuously absent from that map: New York.

How is it that one of the most liberal states, with a Democratic governor and a Democratic majority in the state assembly, a state where popular support for legalization is overwhelming — a February poll from Quinnipiac University showed 88 percent of New Yorkers are in favor of legalizing medical marijuana — how can such a left-leaning state lag so far behind its ideological peers?

Albany, replies Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, is a place "fraught with drug war politics, and it lacks a coherent sort of frame-work to address these types of questions."

For one thing, Sayegh explains, "You have a history of some very draconian policies" like the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which set the mandatory sentence for selling two ounces or possessing four at a mandatory 15 years, minimum. (Those laws remained on the books until 2009.) Four decades later, New York leads the nation in arrests for marijuana. And it's not even close: According to an ACLU report, the Empire State made 29 percent more pot busts than its closest competitor, Texas.

"On the other hand, you have some really smart innovations that have occurred," Sayegh adds. New York, for instance, passed legislation to research the therapeutic applications of marijuana way back in 1980.

In January, Andrew Cuomo announced he would use that 1980 law — the Antonio G. Olivieri Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Program — as the legal basis for his own medical marijuana program. "We'll establish a program allowing up to 20 hospitals to prescribe medical marijuana, and we will monitor the program to evaluate the effectiveness and the feasibility of a medical marijuana system," Cuomo declared.

For a man who only a few years earlier declared his unequivocal opposition to legalizing medical marijuana, that was quite the turnaround. "The dangers of medical marijuana outweigh the benefits," Cuomo said on the campaign trail in 2010. It could raise revenues, though, a reporter noted. "A lot of things could raise revenues," Cuomo said. "Legalizing prostitution could raise revenues. I'm against that, too."

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