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Late effort to legalize marijuana fails to gain quick support

The State Senate chamber in Albany in March.

The State Senate chamber in Albany in March. Photo Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

 ALBANY — Legislators on Tuesday introduced a new, last-minute version of a bill to legalize marijuana, but the changes they hoped would revive the measure failed to gain the quick support they sought.

“We’re getting into the nitty-gritty,” said Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island), a supporter of the bill. “Now we just have to make sure that all the members who raised specific issues have those issues addressed.”

With the legislative session scheduled to end Wednesday night, negotiations continued, but an alternative bill that would further decriminalize marijuana without legalizing it began to draw support.

The latest version of the bill to legalize marijuana was drafted at 3 a.m. Tuesday, and it was tweaked through the day in attempt to attract enough votes for passage.

Among the key legislators supporters are trying to persuade are the six Long Island Democratic senators, according to an official familiar with the Long Island Democrats’ position, they weren't won over by late Tuesday afternoon.

Those more moderate members of the Senate’s Democratic conference have raised concerns for months about the ability of law enforcement to react to driving while under the influence of marijuana and other crimes involving the drug as well as concerns about public health.

Savino said the newest version of the legalization bill sought to make it easier for local governments to opt out of the law. Other issues included providing more tax revenue from sales to local law enforcement — who were among the loudest critics of the bill — and local schools. Other major snags included efforts by some legislators to make sure that low-income, minority communities benefit from the sale of marijuana to help offset years of being targeted for marijuana law enforcement.

That was a major priority of one of the bill’s sponsors, Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo). By Tuesday afternoon, she seemed to be prepared to continue the fight next year if she didn’t secure a strong, comprehensive bill.

“It is imperative that we do this right the first time,” she tweeted. She said she hoped leaders could agree on the new version and agree to stay to pass it on Friday. “Otherwise, I will continue to fight for justice.”

The effort to legalize marijuana was popular in the November elections for Democrats who won control of the Senate, but it has proved elusive to put it into a bill that could gain enough votes in the Senate and Assembly as well as the support of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The governor had included it in his budget proposal, but the measure failed to gain agreement before the budget was adopted April 1.

The alternative bill to further decriminalize marijuana, which has strong Senate and Assembly sponsors, was introduced Sunday. The bill would further reduce the charge for possession of marijuana, expunge many past convictions for possession of marijuana, and include smoking of marijuana with the restrictions on tobacco smoking in public.

A legislative official said the alternative bill was raised as an option during a closed-door conference of the Assembly’s Democratic majority.

“The very least we can do is make sure people who have suffered under these laws their records are expunged and they can get the stain off their lives and get housing and get jobs and things like that,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said at midday Tuesday. “We’re still talking. It’s the same issues. It’s just, can it get done over the next couple of days is the question.”

Cuomo also said on Tuesday that talks continued, but continued to question whether there were enough votes for the bill in the Legislature.

Failing to legalize marijuana this session would punt it into next year’s session, which is a legislative election year. Supporters say the political pressure might help pass the bill, which is popular with the public, while others say it could be too big and sensitive a measure to handle in an election year.

— Yancey Roy

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