"We must also end the needless and unjust criminal convictions and the debilitating criminal stigma and let’s legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana once and for all," Governor Cuomo said while unveiling the goals of the new administration, which will be supported by a Democrat-dominated Assembly and Senate.
Legalization was part of the new administration's "What would FDR do" approach to governing. It's a stance that is somewhat ironic given that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is responsible for signing federal cannabis prohibition into law back in 1937. But Cuomo didn't mention undoing that part of Roosevelt's legacy while praising FDR's many achievements and frequently quoting from the New Deal president.
Instead, Cuomo presented cannabis legalization as part of his intention to reduce the racial and class divides in the state’s justice system.
"We have had two criminal justice systems: one for the wealthy and the well-off, and one for everyone else," he said. "We will advance our justice agenda and particularly address the forms of injustice that for too long have unfairly targeted the African-American and minority communities."
Unfortunately, his pledge was big on promises and short on details. Despite vowing to "get to the meat of the specific legislative issues" instead of offering "a lot of rhetoric and retrospective" during this speech, Governor Cuomo offered zero points on how he plans to turn cannabis legalization from a campaign promise to a political reality in New York. His speech did not discuss personal possession limits for New Yorkers, how and where cannabis would be sold, a tax scheme for regulated sales or even a timeline for when to expect the process of legalization to begin.
Instead, Cuomo offered some pointed sentiments about the importance of legalization and nothing more. Those comments on its importance, however, were somewhat undermined by the fact that legalization appeared toward the bottom of the new administration's list of priorities.
This issue was the 20th tentpole of a very ambitious plan that included passing reproductive health rights for women, increasing funding for education, making healthcare more accessible, increasing restrictions on gun control, overhauling New York's decrepit subway system, protecting voting rights, increasing spending for affordable housing, among others—all of which he plans to tackle between now and the end of 2019.
While Cuomo will likely have the legislature's support in pursuing this promise, as both chambers are held by the Democrats, he might not have the time or inclination to pursue this massive legislative change alongside other pressing issues. While he spoke strongly in favor of legalization today, Cuomo has been inconsistent on the issue in the past. He opposed cannabis legalization over the entirety of his first term as governor, and referred to marijuana as a “gateway drug” as recently as 2017.
So whether or not he has the time or inclination to pursue this promise will determine if cannabis legalization will be part of Cuomo's legacy, or if his failure to repeal prohibition becomes another footnote in New York's history of marijuana reform.