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How the Nation's Most Dysfunctional State Government Blocked Medical Marijuana (And Campaign Finance Reform)

A contest between political factions produced disaster where progress should have happened.

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This year, the governor’s top concerns were gun control and his proposals to establish tax-free zones for businesses on state university campuses, to open gambling casinos, and a 10-point women’s-rights package that failed because the Senate rejected its abortion-rights provision and the Assembly refused to divide it into separate bills. Cuomo casts himself as a crusader for open, honest government, but he signed off on the blatantly gerrymandered redistricting plan, he tacitly supported the Klein faction’s split with the regular Democrats, and he waited until there were less than 10 days left in the session to introduce his bill for public financing of campaigns in the Senate. Several observers speculated that he really didn’t want to see it passed.

The one marijuana measure Cuomo supported was the bill to decriminalize marijuana possession “in public view.” Since 1977, possession of less than 25 grams has been a violation carrying a $100 fine—but smoking or possessing it in public is a misdemeanor. In New York City over the last 15 years, police have used that loophole to arrest more than 500,000 people on petty pot charges, mostly young black and Latino men.

The Drug Policy Alliance backed that bill on the grounds that it would eliminate most of these arrests—but so did Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, the prime architects of the pot-bust policy, who normally contend that any let-up in police stop-and-frisk practices would plummet the city back to the bad old days of the late-1980s crack era.

Cuomo supported the bill but did not make it a priority, says Empire State NORML’s Douglas Greene, who believes it was a ploy to “prevent stop-and-frisk reforms” by “releasing the pressure a bit.” Bloomberg and Kelly, says Krueger, “could come out and support it because they knew it wasn’t going to happen.”

The Independent Democratic Conference proposed a modified version that would apply only to New York City, says Krueger, but legislators from upstate cities like Rochester and Buffalo—which have seen their own share of racially skewed pot busts—quickly shot it down. That proposal “highlighted the stupidity of our thinking when it comes to marijuana,” she says. “It’s amazing how we continue to come up with the worst ideas to solve obvious problems.”

The medical-marijuana bill would have been one of the nation’s most restrictive, closer to New Jersey’s model—which bans home cultivation by patients and narrowly specifies the conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and AIDS wasting syndrome, that qualify—than to Colorado’s. The revised version introduced June 14 added more restrictions. It eliminated fibromyalgia, vomiting, dysphoria, and pain as valid reasons for medical use and dropped a provision that would have let people not registered as patients claim medical use as an “affirmative defense” if they were arrested.

The revised bill also would have limited the number of cultivation facilities in the state to 10 for the first two years. New Jersey, which is one-sixth as big as New York and has less than half as many people, allows six dispensaries. Many patients complain that is too few, especially as only one has opened since the law was enacted more than three years ago.

Empire State NORML still supported the bill, says Greene, but the revisions increased its reservations. Julie Netherland said it still would have ensured broad patient access, and that it would have had the entire medical-cannabis system administered by the state Department of Health was a strong point. But, she adds, restrictions have to be balanced against patients’ interests.

On cannabis issues, Cuomo appears to be positioning himself so he can’t be tarred as a hardline prohibitionist if the winds blow toward legalization, but he also doesn’t want to be branded as a “legalizer.” The medical bill, says Greene, was restrictive enough so it would have been politically difficult for him to veto it—so it worked better for him if the bill died without his fingerprints on the corpse.

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