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Will Protests Lead To Legalization In New York?

As mass protests over police killings of black Americans continue across the U.S., there’s a renewed push in New York to pass a package of criminal justice reform legislation that includes marijuana legalization.

The Safer NY Act is a collection of five bills that have been previously introduced and largely focus on policing reform, but it also contains legislation to legalize cannabis for adult use.

Sen. Julia Salazar (D) said in a press release this week that legislators should take up the package right now in order to “help increase police transparency and help increase accountability to New Yorkers’ most common encounters with police.”

Part of that means “legalizing marijuana with strong attention paid to ensuring that resources are reinvested in communities most harmed by prohibition,” the release says.

The senator told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview that while the state expanded cannabis decriminalization last year, “it’s not enough until we fully make it legal and we stop criminalizing people for using it, especially for using it responsibly, and stop criminalizing people for something that is completely legal within driving distance of our state.”

“Of course, in this particular moment, I think what’s the important factor here is that [criminalization] disproportionately impacts black and brown New Yorkers,” Salazar said. “Because of the criminalization of the use of marijuana, more black and brown New Yorkers have interactions with police than they need to. More people end up in the criminal justice system in the first place than is necessary at all.”

Asked whether she feels her colleagues are positioned to advance the legalization bill as part of the criminal justice reform package, the senator said she does believe  “there is some will to do it.”

“I would say, we haven’t been actively discussing it this week and yet we have been conferencing. Frankly I think it’s because there’s so much work to be done urgently on police accountability,” she said, adding however that “recently, interest has increased in passing [the legalization bill] in part because of a need to raise revenue and a consensus that we should legalize marijuana.”

Zephyr Teachout, who unsuccessfully challenged Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) in a 2014 primary race, also said on Monday that the legislature should reconvene to pass the package, which has been endorsed by various civil rights groups including the state’s NAACP chapter, Drug Policy Alliance and New York Civil Liberties Union.

Cuomo, who has pushed for legalization as part of his last two annual budget proposals, said last month that he does believe the state will eventually enact the policy change. However, he’s been noncommittal about a timeline, noting on several occasions that the administration’s focus is on a coronavirus pandemic response.

He indicated in April that he thought the legislative session was “effectively over” in general and raised doubts that lawmakers could pass cannabis reform vote remotely via video conferencing.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D) also said that she hoped to achieve legalization this year, but she acknowledged the challenges posed by the current health crisis.

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