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Cannabis legalization advocates expect New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to call on the legislature to legalize recreational marijuana during his first budget address in 2019.
"We're drafting legislation," Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for the governor, told NBC News on Tuesday, when asked about decriminalizing weed.
The New York Post first reported earlier Tuesday that the governor's next budget address would include the introduction of a pot-legalization plan — but Azzopardi downplayed that news by noting that "in August we appointed a 16 member working group to draft legislation and hold public hearings."
Cuomo got the ball rolling for legalization earlier this year by launching a working group to make legislative recommendations based on a multi-agency study on "regulated marijuana" unveiled in July.
The multi-agency study that was released in summer concluded, "The positive effects of a regulated marijuana market in New York State outweigh the potential negative impacts," according to a summary.
Kassandra Frederique, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), said the group is urging the governor and lawmakers to make a lot of things right with recreational legalization.
The DPA would like to see minor marijuana convictions expunged and cannabis business opportunities made abundant in minority communities disproportionately targeted by drug enforcement.
"There’s a lot to hope for in the legislative session," she said. "I think it puts the governor's office in the hot seat. What they put forward is supposed to be reflective of what they heard" from the working group.
"We're ready with a checklist to hold them accountable," Frederique said.
She was at a two-day DPA conference in Albany where experts from around the nation were discussing the best pathways to recreational legalization in New York.
Critics of legalization say proponents' enthusiasm should be curbed. "Legalization is never a done deal, and it’s very hard to get through at the end of the day," Kevin Sabet, president of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said via email.
The group, which has opposed legalization in states like Colorado, opened an office in New York City four years ago.
"We have already assembled multiple opposition groups and individuals," he said. "I think the marijuana industry greatly underestimates what we can do and, frankly, that works to our advantage."
New York's own Democratic governor wasn't always on board: In 2017 Cuomo called marijuana a "gateway drug" that can lead people to use harder narcotics. But a lot has changed since then, and so has his attitude.
"We must thoroughly consider all aspects of a regulated marijuana program, including its impact on public health, criminal justice and State revenue, and mitigate any potential risks associated with it," Cuomo said in a statement in August.
Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have approved some form of legalization, and in November, Michigan became the 10th state to go recreational.
In Albany, New York's capital, Democrats won control of the upper house in November, and the Assembly remains in the hands of that party, where drug reform has seen some momentum.
"We need to move beyond our completely broken prohibition model on marijuana to a sensible tax-and-regulate model," Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard N. Gottfried, D-Manhattan, said via email.
"Continued criminalization does not prevent marijuana use but destroys the lives of thousands of people a year and creates an illegal drug market that costs millions of dollars in law enforcement and other resources while disproportionately affecting minority communities," he said. "I look forward to working with the Governor and the new Senate leadership on legislation to correct this historic abuse of the drug war."
Medical marijuana became legally available to a very limited category of New York patients in 2016. The DPA wants recreational pot to be available to all state residents 21 and older.
"We’re in that moment where we can’t afford incrementalism," Frederique said. "I’m look forward to this being a priority issue for the governor’s office."