Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s health commissioner said Monday his agency will soon issue a report recommending the legalization of recreational marijuana, possibly setting the stage for a dramatic policy shift for the governor.
Dr. Howard Zucker said the health department will release a long-awaited marijuana report in the coming days.
“We realized that the pros outweigh the cons and the report recommends a regulated, legal marijuana program be available to adults in the state of New York,” Zucker said at a news conference in Brooklyn.
If the governor backs the report’s recommendation, it would complete an extraordinary shift for the Democrat. It also would put him on the same page as Cynthia Nixon, the actress and activist who is challenging Cuomo for the Democratic nomination from the political left. And it would align New York with a growing number of states that have legalized marijuana.
Another Cuomo election opponent, Republican Marc Molinaro, said the health department’s recommendation was more about Cuomo “sprinting to the left” in an election year than a serious consideration of the issue.
When he took office in 2011, Cuomo initially opposed the legalization not only of recreational marijuana but also of medical marijuana. Pushed by state legislators, he negotiated a new medical marijuana program in 2014, but still opposed recreational marijuana, calling it a “gateway drug.”
In January, Cuomo proposed that the state budget fund a study about potential legalization. Though the provision wasn’t included in the budget adopted in March, Cuomo said in April the health department would conduct the research anyway, saying the “facts” had changed and noting the many other states that have decriminalized marijuana.
Meanwhile, Nixon on April 11 called for legalization of the recreational use of marijuana. She said it was a “social justice” issue and noted the disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos prosecuted for marijuana use compared with whites. She also said it could raise revenue for the state.
Zucker didn’t disclose any further details on what his agency would recommend, such as limits on businesses and tax rates. He didn’t specify a minimum age, but said legalization would be only for “adults.”
Asked for a rationale in the policy switch, Zucker likened it to research driving changes in medical policy.
“This is no different than medicine,” Zucker said. “We have new facts. We have new data.”
Nor was it clear if, how and when the administration might follow through on Zucker’s recommendation. The state Legislature is set to adjourn for the year on Wednesday, meaning no meaningful action could likely occur until 2019 — after this year’s elections.
Cuomo’s office limited its comments to saying it would “review the report when we receive it.”
A Nixon spokeswoman said Zucker’s announcement was being used to “distract” attention from opening arguments Monday in a public corruption trial that focuses on Cuomo’s high-profile economic projects. Nixon aide Lauren Hitt also said the policy shift comes too late for many New Yorkers.
“One year after calling marijuana a ‘gateway drug,’ it shouldn’t have taken Cuomo eight years and #TheCynthiaEffect to understand the ‘facts have changed,’” Hitt said, referring to a term activists have used to describe Cuomo’s shifts to the left in this election year. “Cynthia believes legalizing cannabis is not enough and we must also expunge people’s records and create marijuana equity, setting aside half of its marijuana licenses for low-income residents who have been convicted of a marijuana-related crime or who live in communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.”
The Molinaro campaign questioned whether Zucker was providing political cover for Cuomo. It noted that Zucker previously was deployed by Cuomo to write a study that ultimately led the governor to banning — just after the 2014 election — hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.
“There are serious questions to be answered about marijuana,” said Molinaro spokeswoman Katy Delgado. “They should be answered by serious people without a political agenda.”