This article originally appeared on VICE.
New Yorkers think of themselves as the most socially tolerant, forward-thinking people on Earth, but when it comes to marijuana laws, the Empire State is running decades behind schedule. The pernicious Rockefeller Drug Laws that imposed brutal mandatory minimum prison sentences for traffickers, passed during the white-panic days of the 1970s, weren't repealed until 2009. Stop-and-frisk policies embraced by the New York Police Department have made New York City the world capital of racially biased weed arrests—and even though new mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned against the city's clampdown on black and brown pot smokers,very little has changed since he took office.
On Tuesday, the State Assembly in Albany easily passed a bill that would establish a "seed to sale" regime of medical marijuana in New York. It's the fifth time the Assembly has passed some kind of pot decriminalization measure in the past seven years only to see it die each time in the Senate. Medical marijuana would not solve the glaring problem of young black and Hispanic men being singled out for arrest by reactionary cops, but legalization advocates will take what they can get. So is New York actually ready to take the leap into the 21st century, where pot isn't all that big of a deal and in fact might benefit everyone from cancer and AIDS patients to veterans suffering from PTSD?
"Drugs has always been a very hot potato for people in politics, and that has really slowed things down in New York," State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, the sponsor of the bill that just passed and a perennial advocate, told me. "It does seem like the Senate Republican leadership is heading toward wanting to do a bill. If that's where they are, I'm confident we can negotiate something that is acceptable to all sides."
Advocates and lobbyists in Albany are cautiously optimistic, in part because Andrew Cuomo—the governor who runs Albany with the support of Wall Street and the local business community—is up for re-election in the fall. Typically, elections make Democrats skittish about staking out controversial positions lest they be savaged by conservatives, and sure enough, Cuomo has worked overtime the past year to block new taxes on the wealthy (proposed by de Blasio to pay for universal pre-K) and make sure his constituents in the 1 percent are satiated. But all that palling around with the rich has come at a price: Cuomo is massively unpopular among many progressive Democrats and the left, raising the question of whether the Working Families Party (WFP, a third-party alternative supported by labor unions) might rescind its support for Cuomo and run someone against him. That would probably fail to prevent Cuomo from securing another term, but it would almost certainly cut into his margin of victory.
Given the deep skepticism about Cuomo within his own party, signing even a modest pro-marijuana measure might help his popularity with the left. And it would be consistent with his worldview, in which meager advances on social policy are offered up to appease the dirty hippies while economic redistribution is never seriously considered. Cuomo steered same-sex marriage through the legislature three years ago, winning national headlines and progressive adulation even though the victory was due mostly to Wall Street cash. Then again, the WFP is more focused on economic inequality (its big issue right now is public financing of state elections), and a move on drug legalization might strike members as the worst kind of election-year cynicism—a twisted appeal to the youth vote that fails to address their material needs.
Where does all of this shady behind-the-scenes jockeying leave us? Republicans and Democrats aligned with Cuomo—including State Senator Diane Savino, who sponsored the upper chamber's version of medical marijuana legislation, which just cleared the health committee—control the balance of power. Were the governor to offer up some fresh indication of support, GOP legislators might be tempted to follow along. After all, their party's brand has been in tatters in New York and nationally for years, and libertarians are gaining currency in the broader conservative reform project.
"The longer that this sits and lingers, the more it hurts the Republicans," said Evan Nison, director of the New York Cannabis alliance and executive director of NORML-New Jersey, both pro-legalization groups. "The difference this time is Cuomo jumpstarting it" by floating a logistically implausible medical marijuana scheme run out of hospitals in his January state-of-the-state address. The current legislative session will continue through mid June, giving supporters a couple weeks to work the phones and prod the powers that be.
One thing that might make medical marijuana irresistible to Cuomo and Republicans is the money that can be made from it. Already, businesses in weed-friendly Colorado are lobbying in Albany for access to New York's massive market, and the party that claims to champion entrepreneurs could have a hard time justifying a policy that lets all that investment and potential tax revenue go elsewhere. Also changing the debate has been outrage at the scourge of prescription-drug and opiate addiction among white youth in the Northeast, which has made the war on drugs suddenly relevant to a wider swath of the political class than ever before. In the same vein, it doesn't hurt the cause that Hudson Valley Republican Assemblyman Steve Katz, who was arrested for speeding while in possession of a small bag of marijuana last year, is now a fierce advocate for decriminalization and the financial promise of a local pot industry.
"It didn't get our attention until it hit communities that had a certain amount of prosperity about them," an extremely confident Savino told me of her fellow members of the state legislature, practically daring Cuomo to stand in the way. "I cannot imagine a scenario where he would veto the bill."
Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter: @matthewt_ny