Marijuana in New York: Legalization a few votes short in Senate; hung up on NYC suburbs – Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

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Sen. Peter Harckham, D-South Salem, Westchester County, said during an interview June 4, 2019, with the USA Today Network’s Albany Bureau that he would oppose the current bill to legalize marijuana in New York. Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau Chief

ALBANY – Two votes could be all that is standing between recreational marijuana and passage in New York’s Senate, largely due to opposition from lawmakers in New York City’s suburbs.

Thirty Senate Democrats have pledged support for legalizing marijuana for adult use in the state or have said they are leaning that way, according to a tally by the USA TODAY Network’s Albany Bureau.

Not all of those senators have taken a position on the current marijuana bill under consideration.

But even if each backed the measure, that’s still two votes shy of 32 — the minimum number Democrats need to pass a bill in the Senate without outside support.

“I’ve been consistent from the very beginning: This is a hard lift,” said Sen. Liz Krueger, the Manhattan Democrat who sponsors the marijuana-legalization measure.

The pro-legalization effort faces its most significant roadblock in the suburban areas surrounding New York City.

Of the eight Democrats who oppose legalizing recreational marijuana or have expressed significant reservations, five are from Long Island and two are from Westchester County. (The eighth, Sen. Roxanne Persaud, is from Brooklyn.)

Marijuana at center of Cuomo, Senate Democrat rift

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The struggle to marshal votes has been at the center of finger-pointing between Senate Democratic leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who back legalization but have blamed each other for failing to line up the necessary support to get it passed.

Cuomo on Monday said passing the marijuana measure is “not feasible” this year since Krueger has acknowledged there aren’t enough votes lined up with less than 10 working days remaining in the Legislature’s annual session, which ends June 19.

“I am saying I don’t think as we sit here with 10 days left the Senate has the votes,” Cuomo said Tuesday on WNYC-FM. “The reason I say that is because they said they don’t have the votes, so I am just taking them at their word.”

Krueger countered that Cuomo, the most-powerful Democrat on the state level, could help persuade on-the-fence members of his party by enthusiastically embracing her marijuana bill, which would legalize, tax and regulate the drug and incorporates many of Cuomo’s proposals.

“If we don’t get the support of the governor, I will not be able to convince my colleagues — some of whom are on the fence — that this is a good vote for them because this is a controversial issue,” she said.

“If they believe this is something the governor will follow through on and commit to and back us up on, I believe we can bring it across the finish line.”

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In Assembly, Democrats control more than 100 of the 150 seats, making it passage more likely. Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Demcorat who sponsors the bill, said last week she believes she has the votes to pass it.

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Most Senate Democrats in favor

The USA TODAY Network’s tally of members of the Senate’s Democratic majority was based on a series of interviews, bill-sponsor records and other published reports.

One senator, Toby Ann Stavisky of Queens, has not publicly stated a position on recreational marijuana. She did not respond to requests for comment.

Of the 39 Senate Democrats, 24 sponsor Krueger’s marijuana bill and have signaled they will vote for it or are strongly in favor of legalization.

Another six have said they are generally in favor of legalization or are leaning that way.

“Weighing the benefits and costs, I would vote for this bill with a call for greater analysis of the street safety and impaired driving implications,” said Sen. Andrew Gounardes, D-Brooklyn, who had previously described himself as “agnostic” on recreational marijuana legalization.

In the Hudson Valley, freshman Sens. James Skoufis, D-Woodbury, Orange County, and Jen Metzger, D-Rosendale, Ulster County, both said they are open to permitting the drug but stopped short of endorsing Krueger’s bill until Senate Democrats have a chance to discuss it in a private conference.

“If it’s done the right way, I’m supportive,” Skoufis said. “I know for some people the politics is complicated or they are uncomfortable with the issue itself. I don’t have those problems.”

Metzger said: “It is important that we get the legislation right and it is important that we cross all our ‘t’s’ and dot all of our ‘i’s,’ but I am generally in support of it.”

Sen. David Carlucci, D-Clarkstown, Rockland County, said Monday he was hopeful a deal could be reached, saying legalizing marijuana would be beneficial for the state as neighboring states either have done so or are pursuing it.

“I know it has been very controversial and it’s complicated,” he said. “So there’s a lot that goes into it. But I think it’s important that we regulate marijuana.”

More: Andrew Cuomo on NY marijuana legalization: ‘I don’t think it’s feasible at this point’

More: Marijuana NY: Is there enough support for legalization?

Suburban Democrats split

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Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, speaks to reporters at the state Capitol about marijuana legalization efforts; May 29, 2019. Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau

On the other side of the Hudson, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, is also in favor and has said passing the bill is important to address the disproportionate impact marijuana arrests have on people of color in urban areas.

But her Westchester colleagues, Sens. Shelley Mayer of Yonkers and Peter Harckham of South Salem, have their concerns.

Harckham, D-South Salem, Westchester County, said he is not supportive of Krueger’s current bill. He said the legislation doesn’t address the needs of law enforcement, schools and public-health officials, nor provide additional state aid for them.

“This is something we have been telling our kids is illegal and bad for them, and now we’re making it legal,” he said. “We need public-service education money to let folks know about the impacts and effects of marijuana.”

Mayer said she has significant reservations about recreational marijuana that reflect “the sentiment of (her) district,” though she suggested she will wait to see what her conference decides.

“I have been opposed to it,” she said. “I will wait to see how my conference comes to a consensus, but I have been opposed to it.”

Lawmakers are also facing pressure back home. Leaders in both Long Island counties have indicated they would opt out of marijuana sales, while in the Hudson Valley, Rockland and Putnam’s county executives have also said they would likely not allow sales locally if the law is passed.

Long Island opposition

On Long Island, three Democratic senators have said they oppose legalization at this point: John Brooks, Anna Kaplan and Monica Martinez.

Two other Long Island Democrats – Todd Kaminsky and James Gaughran – expressed skepticism, with Kaminsky saying his concerns regarding drivers who are under the influence of marijuana remain unaddressed.

In an email, Kaplan spokesman Sean Collins said the senator “isn’t ready to support legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes at this time.”

“Ultimately, it’s important to look at the total picture and the full impact of legalization, and there are still too many public health and safety concerns at this time,” he wrote in an email.

Martinez, D-Suffolk County, said she would vote against the current bill.

“We need to make sure that whatever we pass secures the safety of the public as a whole. And the way it stands right now, it would not protect our public,” she said Tuesday.

The sixth Long Island Democrat, Kevin Thomas, supported marijuana legalization as part of his political campaign last year.

While it’s possible that the marijuana measure could pick up some Republican support, Democratic leaders have long been wary of relying on votes from the opposing party to pass a bill.

Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County, said Wednesday that recreational marijuana appears unlikely to be approved this year.

There are 22 Republicans in the Senate as well as Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat who doesn’t belong to a conference. One seat is vacant.

“Listening to our colleagues and speaking with our Democratic colleagues, I think they are extremely nervous to have the possibility of having to vote on recreational marijuana on a standalone basis,” Flanagan told reporters.

“But there are nine days left,” he added.

JCAMPBELL1@gannett.com

Includes reporting by Albany Bureau staff writer Chad Arnold.

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