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Cuomo predicts NY marijuana legalization in 2021 due to budget shortfall

Proponents of legalizing marijuana for adult use in New York were handed good news Thursday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said the state’s massive budget deficit heading into next year will likely be a catalyst for the drug’s legalization in the coming months.

"I think this year it is ripe because the state is going to be desperate for funding. Even with Biden, even with the stimulus, we're still going to need funding,” Cuomo said. "I think we're going to get there this year."

There's also new pressure for New York on the issue; voters in New Jersey approved a measure on the ballot to legalize marijuana Tuesday.

Advocates in New York have been trying, for years, to convince the state Legislature to legalize marijuana, but the measure has failed at every turn for a variety of reasons.

Cuomo first announced his support for legalizing the drug in 2018, when the state Department of Health issued a report supporting the move. But the issue was considered off the table that year because Republicans were in control of the State Senate.

The state inched closer to legalization last year after Democrats took the majority in the State Senate. But, even with full Democratic control of the Legislature, lawmakers remained divided on the issue, particularly what the state would do with the revenue from taxing the drug.

Some Democrats in New York have advocated, strongly, for the tax revenue from marijuana to be directed to communities where the state’s criminalization of the drug has had the strongest impact. That way, those communities would be able to afford more resources.

But others have called for the revenue to be divided more generally into areas like public education, or infrastructure. They essentially want the money to go into the state’s coffers and be treated as general revenue without a specific purpose.

That disagreement tanked the issue last year, but Democrats had new hope for legalizing marijuana when they returned to Albany in January. The issue was expected to come up in state budget negotiations in March.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic emerged in late February and derailed the state’s finances. Lawmakers focused their energy on other issues, like paid sick leave, a roll-back of bail reform laws, and the legalization of gestational surrogacy.

Since then, state lawmakers have largely stayed away from Albany this year in an effort to avoid gathering during the pandemic. They’re not expected to return before the start of the next legislative session in January.

At that point, the pressure will likely be on for Democrats to reach a resolution on the issue. The state has projected that marijuana sales could net $700 million in sales tax revenue annually, though budget analysts have warned that the actual number could shift over time.

Lawmakers will return to Albany at the start of January, when Cuomo is scheduled to deliver his annual budget address to the Legislature.

Dan Clark is host/producer of New York Now.