Is New York Behind the Democratic Presidential Candidates on Pot?

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders discuss marijuana law reform at the Democratic debate.
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders discuss marijuana law reform at the Democratic debate.

Brooklyn native Bernie Sanders and former New York senator Hillary Clinton both voiced support for marijuana law reform during the Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, New York State is readying implementation of its medical marijuana law, which continues to be criticized for its restrictiveness. New York's Compassionate Care Act is among the most conservative medical marijuana laws among the states that have legalized it, and it may even be a bit behind the progressive values of mainstream national Democratic candidates, which is something of a shocker.

“Despite differing specifics on marijuana policy, nearly every presidential candidate — Democrat and Republican — has now offered support for the continuation of state policy reforms,” says Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “Given that the 2016 election is likely to result in several new states with legal medical or adult-use marijuana programs, that’s a critical piece of progress.”

During the debate, when the candidates were asked about their positions on pot, Sanders said he would vote in favor of a recreational legalization initiative in Nevada, where the debate was hosted. “I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for nonviolent offenses,” said Sanders. “We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away, and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana.”

While more centrist than Sanders, Clinton, too, stated her support for medical marijuana, but did not take a position on legalizing cannabis for adult use. “I think that we have the opportunity through the states that are pursuing recreational marijuana to find out a lot more than we know today,” said Clinton. “I do support the use of medical marijuana, and I think even there we need to do a lot more research so that we know exactly how we’re going to help people for whom medical marijuana provides relief.”

Sanders's and Clinton’s statements show that many of New York’s elected leaders are behind the rest of the country when it comes to cannabis reform, says Evan Nison, director of the New York Cannabis Alliance

Governor Cuomo’s amendments to the Compassionate Care Act reflect a hostility toward the idea of medical marijuana, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried has said in his criticisms of the final draft of legislation he had introduced in 1997. The law, which Cuomo signed in June 2014 and which goes into effect in January, covers just ten medical conditions, while the products will be available in only twenty dispensaries across the state's 55,000 square miles.

The presidential candidates’ openness in talking about marijuana may set a precedent for politicians around the country. “I think New York politicians will feel they can be more open and honest in debate about [marijuana],” says Dave Holland, legal director of Empire State NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). “It’s not a hush-hush conversation in backrooms anymore, and it’s not political suicide to start talking about it in a very serious format.”

He adds that Sanders's invoking the connection between minor drug offenses and mass incarceration will help shine a light on another important issue that often gets overshadowed by the medical marijuana debate.

“The more that conversation takes place — why are we going after and heavily prosecuting certain segments of society? — it becomes a bigger question of equality and racism,” he says.

Marijuana possession arrests in New York cost taxpayers $75 million a year. Of those arrested, 84 percent are black or Latino, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) reports, even though whites use marijuana at higher rates. Almost 70 percent of marijuana arrests are of those under the age of 30, and most are under 21. As of 2012, a total of 112,974 people were arrested on charges of possession or sale of marijuana.

“Marijuana prohibition has been a driver of mass incarceration and has done nothing to stop the use of marijuana,” says Julie Netherland, DPA's deputy director for New York. “I think what we’re seeing at the national level is broad support for reforming failed marijuana prohibition. I do think that can create a climate where broad reform is possible in New York.”

New York was the 23rd state to legalize medical marijuana and certainly hasn’t been a leader on the issue, Netherland points out. “New York likes to think of itself as a leader, but it’s trailing behind other states and federal candidates,” she says. “That’s an important point to make.”

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