New York and New Jersey Governors Back Cannabis Legalization in State of the State Addresses
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Democratic governors Phil Murphy of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York have both publicly backed the legalization of recreational marijuana during their respective State of the State speeches.
The two states have been locked in an informal race to become the first state in the Northeast to legalize recreational cannabis use since Cuomo announced in early December that he had reversed his opinion on cannabis legalization — following advice given to him by expert groups such as the state police and health department.
Both governors detailed plans to introduce legalization measures during their time in office, saying the measures have the potential to raise significant amounts of state revenue and also help to repair a history of past criminal and economic injustice as a result of the American “War on Drugs”.
Cannabis legalization in New Jersey
Gov. Phil Murphy (D) was elected the governor of New Jersey in 2017, defeating the Republican party nominee Kim Guadagno by a margin of 13 percentage points. Murphy’s time in office followed two terms of Republican leadership under the populist politician and former federal prosecutor Chris Christie.
One of Murphy’s central campaign promises was to end cannabis prohibition in the Garden State within the first 100 days following his election. Needless to say, this hasn’t happened, but the New Jersey legislature has been making slow and steady progress in the direction of legalization. Recently, three separate bills were approved in a joint session of the State Senate and Assembly committees which will now move on for consideration in front of the full state legislature — including one bill, the “New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act”, which would legalize the possession and recreational use of personal amounts of cannabis in the state.
“By legalizing adult-use marijuana – first and foremost – we can reverse the inequality and unfairness left from years of failed drug policies and shift public safety resources to where they can do the most good,” said Gov. Murphy in his State of the State address. "We must ensure that those with a past mark on their records because of a low-level offense can have that stain removed, so they can move forward to get a stable job or an education.”
“But, it will also allow us to broadly benefit from creating an entirely new and legal industry, much as we did last year with sports betting. We are learning from the states that went before us on what not to do, but we are also seeing the positive economic impacts. Massachusetts’ new industry is creating an estimated 19,000 new jobs. And, in Colorado, legalization fostered an industry that has an annual statewide economic impact measured at $2.4 billion, with 18,000 new jobs created in research, agriculture, processing, and retail.”
“We can do that here, and in a smart way that ensures fairness and equity for minority-owned businesses and minority communities.”
Presently, the largest barrier to the speedy implementation of cannabis legalization bills in New Jersey is an ongoing argument in the state legislature: the degree to which legal recreational cannabis would be taxed. Despite no clear resolution seeming to have been reached, those in the administration remain confident that legalization will soon come to New Jersey. In the event where a compromise cannot be reached between both sides, leaders of the legislature could agree to pass the bill as it stands and send it to the governor, where he could use his conditional veto power to rewrite relevant portions of the bill before it becomes law.
Cannabis legalization in New York
In the case of New York, Andrew Cuomo, a former state attorney general and federal secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is just beginning his third term as the state’s governor — having won every gubernatorial contest since his first election to office by a margin of at least 14 percentage points.
Despite his clear popularity among the progressive electorate in New York, Cuomo has a somewhat uncomfortable history with cannabis prohibition. In his role as the federal secretary of housing and urban development under the Clinton administration, Cuomo oversaw the introduction of regulations that essentially instituted a “one strike and you’re out” policy for public housing tenants and their family members in the case of a resident being found in possession of cannabis or other illegal drugs.
In the 2010 gubernatorial race, where he would win his first election to the governorship, Cuomo maintained that he was opposed to legalizing even medicinal marijuana within the state, arguing that there were better ways to raise state revenue and that he believed medical marijuana to still be a dangerous and unproven science. As his term progressed, his stance began to soften, culminating in New York legalizing medical marijuana in 2014, by Cuomo signing the Compassionate Care Act into law.
Still, Cuomo had remained opposed to recreational legalization. As recently as 2017, Cuomo had stated on the record to reporters that he thought of cannabis as a dangerous “gateway drug”. But, just as his view softened on medicinal cannabis, the same has happened now to his opinion on legalizing recreational cannabis use.
“… New York has to establish a regulated adult-use cannabis program,” Cuomo concluded during his State of the State speech. “We had an expert group — State Police, Department of Health — come together. They did a report. They said the benefits outweigh the risks.”
“Now we just have to put it in place, and we have to do it in a way that creates an economic opportunity for poor communities and people who paid the price, and not for rich corporations that are going to come in to make a buck. It reduces the impact of criminalization on communities of colors. It will automatically seal certain cannabis-related criminal records.”
"It implements quality control,” Cuomo continues. “Counties and large cities can opt out so we're not telling them what to do, but they have to affirmatively opt out of the program. No one under 21 years old. It generates approximately $300 million in tax revenue and creates good union jobs that we need.”
In theory, there are few obstacles to New York being able to implement an effectively regulated recreational cannabis system in the near future; Cuomo’s fellow Democratic party members control all three branches of state government and recent polls show strong public support for legalization. Of course, until a bill is put before the legislature — complete with proposals for how the taxing, licensing, and regulation of recreational cannabis would work — and agreed on, it’s entirely possible that New York could run into the same regulatory sticking points that are currently being examined in New Jersey.
Regardless of the exact political obstacles that may stand in the way, both states of New York and New Jersey are certainly among the most likely candidates to become the 11th state to legalize recreational cannabis in the US. Given the pro-cannabis positions of the governor, legislators, and the general public in both states, recreational legalization — and all the economic and criminal justice reform that comes with it — feels like somewhat of an inevitability for both states in the months to come.