The timing of Andrew Cuomo's decision to legalize weed seems like a distraction

  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law legislation that legalizes adult-use marijuana. 
  • The decision comes amid multiple investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct and his handling of the pandemic. 
  • For years, Cuomo has been opposed to the legalization of weed, making the timing of this law seem a bit fishy. 
  • Jana Cholakovska is an NYC-based freelance reporter and editor covering politics, climate change, and labor.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author. 
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Two weeks ago, amid a deluge of calls for his resignation and multiple investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo finally signed legislation to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana in the state. For a man who has spent the majority of his career reluctant to greenlight any weed-related laws the decision is at best opportune and at worst a ploy designed to distract New Yorkers from the firestorm of the past few months. 

Cuomo’s powerful grip on New York has been steadily slipping over the last few months. In December, Lindsey Boylan — a former aide and current Democratic candidate for Manhattan Borough President — publicly accused the governor of sexual harassment describing an environment where sexual harassment and bullying were not only “condoned but expected.” Boylan’s accusation opened the floodgates: eight other women have since come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct, including one anonymous aide who says that Cuomo “aggressively groped” her in the Executive Mansion last year.

That is not all that has come to light. There is also the Cuomo administration’s disastrous handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes, preferential treatment of the governor’s family in getting coronavirus tests early in the pandemic, possible political pressure on vaccine distribution, and a controversial $4 million book deal.

Now, almost a month after Cuomo denied wrongdoing in every case, derided calls for his resignation as “cancel culture,” and said that he will simply continue doing his job, it seems that the governor is attempting to salvage his tarnished reputation ahead of the 2022 gubernatorial election when he is likely to run for his fourth term as governor. He has retreated into a state of political survival, providing legislators with leverage to pass one of the most progressive weed laws in the country. 

Cuomo has never been the staunchest supporter of cannabis 

In 2010, a week before winning his first election as governor, Cuomo came out against medical marijuana saying that its dangers “outweigh the benefits.” It took him four years to reverse his position and agree to sign a bill that made marijuana available, but only at a limited number of dispensaries to patients with conditions like cancer and glaucoma. Any smokable forms of marijuana were still banned though. It seems that his opinion of pot, however, hadn’t really changed. In 2017, he even called marijuana a “gateway drug,” warning those who partake.

“If you choose to use marijuana recreationally, you know the law,” he said. 

Then the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary came along and Cynthia Nixon burst onto the political stage, running a campaign that made legalizing recreational marijuana one of its policy pillars, framing it as a necessary step towards addressing racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. Within a few weeks both the New York Democratic Party and the State Department of Health voiced their support of recreational marijuana. The tide was turning and Cuomo was struggling to find the current. 

Nixon was by no means the first one to advocate for this kind of policy. For years, lawmakers and activists like Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Drug Policy Alliance’s Executive Director Kassandra Frederique have pursued marijuana legalization as a way to even out the playing field for Black, Latino, Indigenous, and immigrant communities which have been unfairly targeted by law enforcement and disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs. But, it wasn’t until Nixon directly threatened Cuomo’s plans for a third term in office that his messaging took a sharp turn. In August of 2018, he launched a workgroup tasked to draft legislation for regulated recreational marijuana. And only after he was reelected as governor in December he came out in full support of legalization. 

“Let’s legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana once and for all,” he said.

Much like in 2018, the current political moment has acted as a catalyst, pushing cannabis higher on Cuomo’s policy priority. After the two failed deals to legalize weed in 2019 and 2020, lawmakers were finally able to negotiate a deal similar to the previous bills without much meddling from the governor — the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. Under the current deal, 40% of most tax revenues would be invested in communities most harmed by the drug war, another 40% would go into public education, and the remaining 20% would be invested in drug treatment and prevention. 

One cannot help but wonder if the governor would have signed such a progressive deal if it were not for the revelations of the last few months. While his attempt to reframe the narrative of his tenure, only time will tell if Cuomo’s efforts were enough to convince New Yorkers for four more years under his leadership. 

Jana Cholakovska is an NYC-based freelance reporter and editor covering politics, climate change, and labor. You can find her on Twitter @JCholakovska or send her tips via email at [email protected]

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