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Could 2020 be the year that marijuana becomes legal in New York ?

With support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and many members of the state legislature, 2020 could be the year when New York legalizes the adult use of recreational marijuana.

But the issue has become complicated by a widespread lung ailment linked to vaping. 

A measure to legalize cannabis for adults was proposed in 2019, as part of the state budget. It did not make it into the final spending plan, and it failed to win enough support to pass as a standalone bill in the state Senate.

Legislators did decriminalize possession of marijuana, from a misdemeanor to a fine, although people can still be arrested for having the drug on them.

This fall, Cuomo took some steps to further the goal of legalizing marijuana in New York in 2020. 

In October, he held a summit with governors of the neighboring states of Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to come up with a multi-state approach to legalization. 

"I believe the people of this state and our surrounding states have a desire to do it," Cuomo said. "But the old expression, 'the devil is in the details.' How you do this is all the difference. It can be a positive if done right; it can be a negative if it's not done correctly." 

In December, Cuomo hired Norman Birenbaum, who will fill the newly created director of cannabis programs position. Birenbaum developed the medical marijuana and industrial hemp programs in Rhode Island and worked on an unsuccessful effort to legalize recreational cannabis in that state.

New York has a limited medical marijuana program, and Cuomo recently signed a bill to regulate the growth of hemp products, including CBD, a chemical extracted from hemp that does not contain the THC associated with a marijuana "high."

The issue has been complicated, though, by a lung ailment linked to vaping that has sickened over 2,500 people and killed 54. The illness has so far been linked to black-market THC products that also contain vitamin E acetate.

The vaping sickness epidemic led Cuomo and his health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, to re-examine the vaping of tobacco products through electronic cigarettes.

A state health department board voted in September to ban flavored tobacco vaping products.

"We have an unbelievable increase in the number of children and adolescents who are using vaping products," Zucker said after that vote.

He added that the goal is to "make sure that we don't get children addicted to nicotine and potentially, other tobacco products." 

A judge halted that ban, though, while the vaping industry pursues a lawsuit. 

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said it's likely that the Legislature, led by Democrats, will seek passage of a law to ban flavored vaping tobacco products, including mint- and menthol-flavored e-cigarettes.

"Unfortunately, so many of our young people have been targeted and are now hooked," Stewart-Cousins said during an interview with public radio and television in November. "What we need to do is pretty clear."

As for legalizing marijuana, Stewart-Cousins says she believes it is "inevitable" that the drug will be authorized for recreational use in New York. But she wants any measure that legalizes the drug to include reparations for communities that have long been adversely affected by marijuana prohibition. 

"Black and Latino communities that have been so targeted, frankly, will be able to have a role in the economy that's going to grow around this industry," Stewart-Cousins said.

The Assembly sponsor of the bill, Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, also backs a measure to use a portion of tax revenues gained from the state-authorized sale of marijuana for a fund to help communities that were disproportionately affected. The fund would pay for things including job training, afterschool activities, and re-entry programs for people coming out of prison.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.