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Why Is Legalization of Marijuana in New York Taking So Long?

It is surprising to many observers that the state of New York - home to the city that stands as the world's center of finance, culture, and commerce - lags far behind such states as Alaska and Oregon in the liberalization of its cannabis laws.

However, examining the structure of the state government and assessing the composition of its elected officials helps reveal why one of the nation's most powerful states has fallen behind on the cannabis issue.

That is not to say that New York state's laws would be described as stringent: In 2014 the state approved a limited yet promising medical cannabis regime, buoyed by the support of the state's governor, Andrew Cuomo.

"There is no doubt that medical marijuana can help people," Cuomo said at the time. "We are here to help people. And if there is a medical advancement, then we want to make sure that we're bringing it to New Yorkers."

Yet aside from the state's medical cannabis law going into effect this year, there have not been many other major developments this year.

Politicians lag behind public support for legalization

The lack of progress belies public support on the issue: In 2014, a Quinnipiac University poll found 57 percent of state voters were found to support the notion of legalizing recreational cannabis in small amounts. Thirty-nine percent of respondents were not supportive.

So what explains the gap between public opinion and legislative action in New York state? It turns out the state has several roadblocks that make the path to full legalization unlikely in the short term.

One explanation is the absence of a key public policy tool available to voters in other states. New York is not currently one of the 26 states (along with the District of Columbia) that allows for voters to approve specific policies via ballot initiative. This was the way in which activists in all of the states that have legalized recreational cannabis thus far were able to achieve their successes. Thus in New York state, the state legislature remains essentially the only avenue towards the legalization of recreational cannabis.

That leads to the second roadblock, which is the opposition to legalization among members of both the State Assembly and the State Senate. And if the length of the debate surrounding New York's medical cannabis regime is any guide, state cannabis activists could be in for a lengthy wait.

"It takes forever to move anything in the New York State Legislature," Brad Usher, the chief of staff to state Sen. Liz Krueger, a supporter of recreational cannabis, told Civilized. "Medical marijuana was first introduced back in the '90s, it started passing the Assembly sometime maybe five years later, and then finally passed the Senate for the first time last year in a much modified form. And I think that you will see a similar path with this bill."

New York state senator Liz Krueger is an advocate for legalizing recreational marijuana but she doesn't get much support from fellow

The lack of movement on the issue is compounded by the opposition of individual state legislators. For example, the chair of the state Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Catharine Young, is known as a staunch opponent of legalization. And because even the holding of a vote on a bill in committee requires the chairperson's blessing, the issue is unlikely to come up anytime soon.

New York can learn lessons from legal states

That does not mean that all hope is lost. Quite the contrary: According to Usher, the fact that New York has not immediately legalized recreational cannabis means that lawmakers can observe their counterparts in Colorado and Oregon to determine where the effort would need tweaking in order to yield the best possible outcome.

"In Colorado, there were some problems with packaging, particularly for edibles, because people weren't used to that particular form of consumption," Usher says. "We learned from Colorado, and Colorado's changed their packaging rules, too. And those are things -- by having them go out there -- you can ideally fix before you actually pass it."

Continued press coverage and the providing of information on the issue could very well lead to the state's voters forcing their elected officials to act.

"Part of it was just to get this on the agenda and get the discussion going, and that's certainly happened. That doesn't mean it moves right away. The fact is that now legislators throughout New York state are hearing from their constituents - upstate, downstate, Republican, Democrat - are hearing from their constituents that they want this policy to change."

Click here to learn about the home delivery of cannabis now that medical marijuana legalization in New York is here.

Stephen Calabria is a New York City-based journalist who also serves as a Media Advisor for


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