The governor also vocalized the need to mitigate racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“We have had two criminal justice systems: one for the wealthy and the well-off and one for everyone else. And that’s going to end,” he said, noting that African American and other minority communities have historically been unfairly targeted. “We must also end the needless and unjust criminal convictions and the debilitating criminal stigma.”
Cuomo’s Monday message was his strongest public endorsement of recreational marijuana to date. It marks a substantial shift from his prior opposition, as recently as last year when he called it a “gateway drug.”
The change in policy stance also follows a bitter battle for the Democratic gubernatorial primary against Cynthia Nixon, who supported legalization.
Ten states, including New York’s neighbor Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia have legalized adult use of recreational marijuana, according to NORML, a group that advocates legalization and tracks pot-related legislation. New Jersey, another neighboring state, is also considering legalization.
The study, which wrapped up in June, determined that “the positive effects of a regulated marijuana market in New York state outweigh the potential negative impacts.” Regulation, it concluded, would enable the state to “better control licensing, ensure quality control and consumer protection, and set age and quantity restrictions.”
The governor has not yet announced projections for revenue from marijuana sales or what the funds would be allocated toward. He will be sworn in on Jan. 1 at Ellis Island and deliver his budget address and State of the State address later in the month.
New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer released a report estimating the potential state market at approximately $3.1 billion per year, with more than $1 billion coming from New York City. It also reported the state could receive $436 million in tax revenue.
Cuomo’s announcement follows a recent push by New York City law enforcement agencies to decriminalize low-level marijuana offenses, which historically have mostly affected minorities.
The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office led the charge in 2014 as the first local prosecutor’s office to stop pursuing low-level marijuana cases. Earlier this year, it launched a program to vacate most marijuana possession convictions. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance also announced he would cease prosecuting marijuana smoking and possession cases and planned to seal low-level marijuana convictions.
The New York City Police Department, backed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, opted to stop making arrests for smoking in public. Since September, the department has issued tickets, known as criminal court summons, instead.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. The Department of Justice, via former attorney general Jeff Sessions, promised a crackdown on enforcement.
Cuomo said Monday, “Let this agenda be New York’s Declaration of Independence. We declare independence from this federal government’s policies. We disconnect from the nationalism and the racism and the chaos and the xenophobia and the misogyny and the discrimination and the dissembling of this Washington administration.”
With an incoming Democratic state Senate and Assembly, he said, the road is paved for legislative change: “Now is the time to stand up and lead and do what you’ve said you were going to do all those years and make a democratic vision a reality."