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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.

Earlier this year, New York looked poised to become the 19th state to legalize medical marijuana. The state Assembly passed a bill by a 99-41 margin June 3. A Quinnipiac poll taken that week indicated that 70 percent of New Yorkers supported the idea. And in the state Senate, the Republicans who had blocked medical-marijuana measures the three times they’d passed the Assembly now retained power only by allying with five renegade Democrats—one of whom, Diane Savino of Staten Island, was the bill’s sponsor. Savino repeatedly said she believed she had enough votes to pass the bill, and would bring it to the floor when the right time came.

That time didn’t come. When the state Senate adjourned early in the morning of June 22, the bill had never reached the floor, despite the renegade Democrat faction’s leader, Jeffrey Klein, cosponsoring a more restrictive revised version. Another measure, to reduce the penalty for marijuana possession “in public view” from a misdemeanor to a $100 fine, also died without a vote in the Senate.

Activists and legislators say they don’t know exactly what happened. "The only thing we can conclude,” says Drug Policy Alliance state director Gabriel Sayegh, is that Klein couldn’t reach an agreement with Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos to allow a vote, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo did nothing to help.

Medical-marijuana legislation hasn’t gotten a vote in the Senate any time since it was first introduced in 1997, says Julie Netherland of New Yorkers for Compassionate Care, and “this year wasn’t any different.” One legislative staffer called it a combination of “Republican recalcitrance” and that “the governor didn’t indicate he was superenthusiastic about it.” Skelos told patients who visited his Long Island district office that Cuomo didn’t want it, says Douglas Greene, legislative director for Empire State NORML.

Neither Skelos nor Savino returned calls from AlterNet, but Savino told a cable news channel June 24 that “there was overwhelming support for medical marijuana and that didn't move forward, because the governor didn't want to do it.” Cuomo’s main public statement on the issue has been that he opposes medical marijuana, but had an open mind.

To state Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), the medical-marijuana measure was just one of an “endless list of progressive bills that never had a chance” in the Senate. The upper house also rejected or ignored a campaign finance reform bill, a ban on hydrofracking for natural gas, prohibiting the use of BPA plastic in baby toys, and a Cuomo-backed measure that would have guaranteed abortion rights if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

While the Democrats who split from the party for Klein’s “Independent Democratic Conference” faction claimed that allying with the Republicans would help get progressive measures through the Senate, Krueger says, “that never made sense to me, and it’s not true.”

Impasse in Albany

The impasse resulted from New York’s designed-to-be-divided state government, often called the most dysfunctional in the nation. In the predominantly Democratic state, Democrats dominate the Assembly, but the Senate is gerrymandered for a Republican majority. Every Senate district north of New York City has close to the legal minimum population, while every one in the city has close to the legal maximum. The GOP’s cartographers also crafted a Republican seat in southwest Brooklyn by excising the public housing projects of Bensonhurst and Coney Island. Those were attached to Savino’s Staten Island district, which is made contiguous by only a seagull-pecked sliver of shoreline between a highway and the ocean. The Democrats managed to win a majority in 2008 and 2012, but were thwarted both times by senators bolting the party—most of them recipients of massive moolah from New York’s real estate lobby.

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