Andrew Cuomo’s Pot Problem
When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation opening the door to medical marijuana last July, supporters of marijuana-policy reform were optimistic that change was finally coming to the Empire State. But the bill Cuomo signed was typical of New York’s strange and troubled history with marijuana policy. Scheduled to launch next January, the medical-marijuana program contains so many gratuitous restrictions and baffling regulations that supporters remain unsure whether the new law is a tentative first step toward meaningful change, or a halfhearted measure doomed to kill sensible marijuana policy.
To see the human cost of Cuomo’s delaying tactics, take the case of young Morgan Jones. When she was born four years ago, doctors diagnosed her with a chromosomal abnormality that leads to a number of serious medical conditions, the most dangerous of which is Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy, which causes potentially life-threatening seizures. By the time she was a toddler, Morgan was taking eight or nine medications and not responding well to any of them. That’s when her mother, Kate Hintz, learned that Morgan’s seizures belonged to a class of epilepsy that appears to respond well to medical marijuana. “It wasn’t a treatment I thought we’d be turning to, but we were running out of options,” she says. There was just one catch: The family lives in New York, one of a dwindling number of states where the medical use of marijuana remained entirely illegal.
Hintz threw herself into lobbying the state government, joining with advocates and other families with children whose conditions could be treated with medical marijuana. Hintz and her allies spent several months buttonholing lawmakers, and by the end of the 2014 legislative session, New York was poised to become the 23rd state to legalize medical marijuana.
“We really had gotten our hopes up,” Hintz says. But as the specifics of the deal began to emerge, it soon became apparent that Andrew Cuomo was no champion of the medical-marijuana movement.
Quinnipiac polls last year found New Yorkers’ support for medical marijuana hovering around 80 percent, and their support for legalizing recreational marijuana between 35 and 57 percent, numbers that track closely to national opinion. But public opinion isn’t everything in New York. Unlike the states where recreational marijuana has been legalized, there’s no ballot-initiative mechanism for the people to impose their will directly. And in New York, the state government is about as undemocratic as a democracy can be: Decisions are hammered out not on the floor of the Legislature, but in the private negotiations of the proverbial “three men in a room” — the governor and the leaders of the two legislative chambers.
“On medical marijuana, on decriminalization of recreational marijuana, on reducing racist marijuana arrests, New York is not where it ought to be,” says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Part of that has to do with Republican lawmakers. Part of it has to do with the Democratic governor.”
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