Published in
The Empire

Political Pressure Caused Cuomo's Pot Plan to Go Up in Smoke

Governor Andrew Cuomo says it's "highly unlikely" that a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession in public view will pass before Albany ends its legislative session Thursday.

Cuomo announced his support of the bill at the beginning of June, with the backing of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and all five district attorneys in the city, as well as top prosecutors from other New York counties.  

But during a press conference Tuesday, Cuomo said that Republicans — who must support the measure for it to pass the state Senate — are under "tremendous" pressure to oppose the legislation.  

"The senate got a lot of blow back," Cuomo said.  "Pardon the pun."

Two weeks ago, state Senate majority leader Dean Skelos suggested to reporters that the sticking point for senate Republicans was an issue of marijuana quantity.

The proposal would decriminalize public possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana, which Skelos said would open the door to "being able to just walk around with 10 joints in each ear."

But supporters of the bill said Tuesday that the obstacle for Republicans moved to a more political one: pressure from the State Conservative Party.

Chairman Mike Long said the Conservative Party would be keeping track of any Republican who supported the measure.

"If a Republican votes for decriminalized marijuana," said Long, "they run the risk of losing our endorsement either this year or in the future."

Long made good on threats last year when he vowed to retaliate against senate Republicans who voted in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.

Long said decriminalizing marijuana would encourage illicit drug use among young people, and he added that Bloomberg's support of the bill is inconsistent with his other policies.

"You can't go around campaigning that a large sugary soda is bad for you, but it's okay to have marijuana," Long said.

Gabriel Sayegh, the state director in New York of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group, said he was surprised that the Conservative Party would be pulling away support from a bill that had so much support from law enforcement.

"This is a new rupture. I don't recall a time that we've seen this," he said.

Cuomo announced his support of the bill this month, saying the current law was confusing to police officers.  He pointed out marijuana arrests are disproportionately black and Latino, and many arrests for publicly displaying pot result when officers direct people to empty their pockets during stop-and-frisks.

Bill supporters say they are committed to passing the bill during any special session called in Albany before the end of the year, or next year.

A more limited version of the bill has been informally proposed by legislators that would have decriminalized only marijuana that's displayed at the direction of an officer during a stop and frisk. But Cuomo said he's seeking broader reform than that.  

"Sometimes it's better to try to get the full reform because a partial reform costs you something. It costs you the energy in many ways that you've developed on the issues," the governor said, "and a partial reform can suggest to people, 'Well, we've taken care of that. That's done. Mark it off your list. You don't have to worry anymore.'"

Cuomo adds that he's not confident the senate would have passed a stop-and-frisk "exception" anyway.  

Asked about how he feels about the NYPD's stop and frisk tactics, he said, "I'm going to to leave that up to Commissioner Ray Kelly and the mayor. That's an issue for local government."