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New York lawmakers are making a last-minute push to legalize marijuana

New York’s marijuana legalization prospects dimmed after some optimism earlier this year, but lawmakers are hoping for a breakthrough.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) holds a press briefing.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds a press briefing.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

With just two days to go in the current legislative session, New York state lawmakers are making a last-minute push to legalize marijuana.

The effort to legalize cannabis really kicked off this year, after Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his support for marijuana legalization in 2018 and introduced a proposal to legalize soon after. But despite Cuomo’s support and Democratic control of the state’s legislature, the proposal has struggled to get through — due to political concerns and disagreements about how the money from marijuana taxes should be used.

Cuomo’s office has met with staff members from the state Assembly and Senate in recent days, for the first time since the last legalization push broke down, Vivian Wang and Jesse McKinley reported in the New York Times.

According to the Times, some progressive legislators want to commit marijuana revenue to communities that have been most negatively impacted by the war on drugs. But Cuomo has resisted those proposals, instead favoring legislative language that would give the executive branch — and the governor — more control over what to do with cannabis revenue.

There is also discussion about how local governments will be able to opt out of, or in to, legalization. And a concerted anti-legalization campaign has scared some lawmakers away from the idea.

Divisions in New York were wide enough that, after some optimistic messaging earlier this year, Cuomo this month said of marijuana legalization, “I don’t think it is feasible at this point.”

There’s also been less pressure to legalize marijuana after neighboring New Jersey’s efforts to do so — and potentially beat New York to the punch — fell apart earlier this year, as lawmakers there also worried about political backlash and more technical details of how to legalize. New Jersey lawmakers instead plan to leave the issue to voters in 2020.

“I also think when New Jersey didn’t pass it, some of the wind came out of the political sail,” Cuomo said, referencing New York’s own efforts to legalize.

But the governor and legislators are now trying to reach some sort of compromise before the end of Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Illinois legislature in May became the first in the country to pass a bill that would legalize marijuana sales. The bill now only needs the signature of Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker to become law, and Pritzker campaigned on legalization.

Vermont’s legislature previously legalized marijuana possession but not sales. In total, 10 states — soon 11 with Illinois — and Washington, DC, have legalized cannabis to varying degrees. Besides Vermont and Illinois, states have legalized through ballot initiatives.

Supporters of legalization argue that it eliminates the harms of marijuana prohibition: the hundreds of thousands of arrests around the US, the racial disparities behind those arrests, and the billions of dollars that flow from the black market for illicit marijuana to drug cartels that then use the money for violent operations around the world. All of this, legalization advocates say, will outweigh any of the potential downsides — such as increased cannabis use — that might come with legalization.

Opponents, meanwhile, claim that legalization will enable a huge marijuana industry that will market the drug irresponsibly. They point to America’s experiences with the alcohol and tobacco industries in particular, which have built their financial empires in large part on some of the heaviest consumers of their products. This could result in far more people using pot, even if it leads to negative health consequences.

So far in New York, opponents are holding out. But state lawmakers may have something to say about that before the week ends.

For more on marijuana legalization, read Vox’s explainer.

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