ALBANY — Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Friday said he would introduce legislation to decriminalize marijuana for recreational use through a bill that faces unlikely passage, but that reflects greater acceptance on the once hot-button issue by politicians including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
“The time has come to decriminalize marijuana,” said Schumer (D-N.Y.). “My thinking — as well as the general population’s views — on the issue has evolved, and so I believe there’s no better time than the present to get this done. It’s simply the right thing to do.”
He acknowledged changing his mind on the issue in part because of the experience in the eight states and one district — Washington, D.C. — that have legalized marijuana for recreational use. “It seems to have worked out pretty well,” Schumer said, adding, “all the parade of horribles that people talked about” didn’t come to fruition.
Marijuana for medical use is legal in 29 states, including New York. Schumer’s legislation “would remove marijuana from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act, effectively decriminalizing it at the federal level,” the senator’s office said in a news release.
Cuomo — who until recent years has been a staunch opponent of legalizing pot — supports Schumer’s bill, said his spokesman, Rich Azzopardi. Cynthia Nixon, Cuomo’s opponent in the upcoming Democratic primary, strongly favors legalization, citing the issue of racial bias in marijuana arrests.
In January, Cuomo called for a study of legalizing marijuana in New York as surrounding states consider doing so. “We announced months ago that we were going to study the legalization issue precisely for that reason,” Cuomo told reporters this week. “You have Massachusetts [legalizing it], you have New Jersey talking about it.”
Schumer’s bill comes as President Donald Trump signaled the federal government won’t crack down on the eight states that allow recreational use. The bill would allow states to decide whether the drug should be legalized.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said he thought Schumer’s bill would be dead on arrival. “I don’t think it’s going anywhere, certainly not at this time,” he said in an interview Friday. “I don’t think it’s going to pass the House or the Senate, but it keeps the national debate going.”
Republicans who control the House and Senate have opposed legalization of marijuana, although some have flipped on the issue, including former House Speaker John Boehner, who recently joined the board of advisers of a marijuana company.
King, for one, remains in the anti-cannabis camp. “I understand that society is going in this direction and that many young people have tried pot, I just think it’s a precursor to other drugs,” King said. He noted the proposal comes as the nation and Long Island are trying to turn back a scourge of opioid and heroin abuse.
“It’s the wrong signal to be sending,” King said. “Society needs more order, not less, when it comes to the use of drugs.”
Schumer, however, had the opposite message, telling Vice news on Thursday, “If smoking marijuana doesn’t hurt anybody else, why shouldn’t we allow people to do it and not make it criminal?”
In January, the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of Americans supported legalizing marijuana for recreation use. That compares with 31 percent in 2000.
The issue provides a wedge for Democrats against Republicans. The Pew survey found just 43 percent of Republicans support legalization, compared with 55 percent opposed.
Cuomo’s support for the Schumer proposal represents a marked difference for the governor since he entered office in 2011. Back then, he firmly opposed efforts to legalize marijuana based on his experience as a former prosecutor and his concern as a father of teenagers. As recently as February 2017, Cuomo called marijuana a “gateway drug” that leads to abuse of harder drugs.
But Cuomo has softened his stance gradually as more states moved to legalization as public polls showed growing support for the measure among Democrats nationwide. Liberal organizations and some Democrats have recently begun framing the outlawing of marijuana as racially biased, something that Nixon has been talking about.
“We have to stop putting people of color in jail for something that white people do with impunity,” said Nixon, the activist and actress who is challenging Cuomo from the left.
There was no immediate comment from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Justin Strekal, the political director for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, was delighted by Schumer’s announcement, saying that the senator “has effectively made it clear that a legislative priority for the Democratic Party is to end the federal prohibition of marijuana.”
Schumer’s bill would continue to allow the federal government to prosecute trafficking of marijuana to states where it remained illegal. The bill would also require marijuana to be regulated, like tobacco, to be sure that the marketing of the drug doesn’t target children.