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Legal Weed Is a Reality in America, but Congress Refuses to Admit It

As New York moves toward legal recreational cannabis, the failure to enact nationwide reforms is becoming more glaring.
Weed in glass cases at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for MedMen's latest Los Angeles location. Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for MedMen Enterprises

New York State Senator Diane Savino says she knows the moment Governor Andrew Cuomo changed his mind on legal weed.

Cuomo was famously so anti-marijuana that as recently as February 2017 he was still pushing the “gateway drug” line. However, at the beginning of August he announced a 20-person working group that will look into the practicalities of legalizing the drug for recreational adult use in the state, a decision that followed a recommendation from a commission that recreational marijuana be legalized.


Savino, one of the four named legislators in the working group, traces the governor’s change of heart back to a conversation she had with him after New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy was elected in November.

“Murphy said that within his first 100 days in office he was going to do a bunch of things—including adult-use marijuana,” she told me. “I had a conversation with [Cuomo] and said: ‘You’re going to have to start thinking about adult-use marijuana now.’ He said: ‘Why? The Republicans in the Senate will never do it.’ I said: ‘It really doesn’t matter what they think or what anybody else thinks. If Phil Murphy does what he’s said he’s going to do then you’ll have marijuana to the left of you, to the right of you in Massachusetts, and to the north of you in Canada. You can’t stop it.’”

When asked if Savino’s recollection of the conversation is accurate, Cuomo’s spokesman Rich Azzopardi replied: “The governor first ordered the report on the feasibility of a legal marijuana program in January because the existence of similar programs in surrounding states changed from question from ‘legalize or don’t legalize’ to ‘how to implement it correctly.’ The State Department of Health released its findings and now experts will use it as a roadmap to writing legislation for next session.”

Savino knows the politics of weed. She was the lead sponsor of the state’s Compassionate Care Act, which legalized marijuana for medical use—with many restrictions, including a ban on smokable weed—when it passed in 2014. She told me she’ll be encouraging other members to travel the country to examine how legalization has happened elsewhere. “You have to leave New York!” she said. “You have to go other states and see what works and what doesn’t work, to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes.”


When she was drafting the bill, Savino said she treated the example of California as a cautionary tale. “California was the thing that scared people in New York the most,” she said. “It was a completely unregulated market because you didn’t have a state law. They allowed local governments to decide whether they were going to issue licenses. You had no rhyme or reason to it, and it really didn’t resemble what people thought a medical program should look like because of the ease with which people could walk in the door and become patients.”

But now that New York is considering moving from a medical to a recreational market, it’ll be time to look at other states again, including California. Since the beginning of the year, when California's Prop 64 came into effect and legal weed became a reality, the drug has moved into the mainstream. In June, Ted Lieu became the first sitting congressman in the country to help open a marijuana dispensary when he cut the ribbon on MedMen’s store on Abbot Kinney in Venice, Los Angeles.

“Prohibition did not work with alcohol, and it wasn’t working with cannabis either,” Lieu said that day. “We needed to bring this out and mainstream it. That’s why I was very supportive of Prop 64. I was one of the co-authors of the ballot guide language, urging voters to go for Prop 64.”

As it happens, MedMen—probably the most well-known dispensary chain in the country—has opened a store in Manhattan too, though that branch has to abide by all the limitations of New York’s medical market. Saviano nevertheless pointed to it as an example of the normalization of the marijuana industry.


“It’s about resocializing the way people think about marijuana,” she said. “You want to make people feel as comfortable walking into a dispensary as they do walking into a liquor store. That’s why MedMen decided to open their dispensary on Fifth Avenue across the street from Lord & Taylor, two blocks away from Tiffany’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. They wanted to put it on Main Street America and say: ‘Here it is, don’t be afraid of it.’”

Something that Savino and Lieu both emphasized when I spoke to them was the importance of removing cannabis from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act at a nationwide level. “I suppose it’s true that I just opened a store that is in direct violation of federal law,” Lieu said at MedMen. “That’s why we need to change federal law.”

Savino expressed her frustration that Congress hasn’t taken more of the initiative on the issue. “You have 336 members of Congress right now who live in states who have a legal marijuana program,” she said. “There’s only 435 members of Congress, not counting the Senate, but they are afraid to take a vote on marijuana policy. It blows my mind! There’s a level of cognitive dissonance on this issue in Congress that is astounding. You have 31 states and counting, plus the District of Columbia, that have legal medical marijuana regulations. That means you have 31 different sets of standards. Thirty-one different sets of patient requirements. It’s insanity, and all of this could be solved if they descheduled marijuana.”


The end of federal cannabis prohibition would bring with it huge changes for the industry. As it stands, it’s very difficult for marijuana businesses to use ordinary banking services or to take out loans, with many forced to deal only in cash. Marijuana products can’t legally be transported across state lines—which has led to absurd situations like Oregon having a surplus of product—and even the more tolerated CBD and hemp industries exist in a legal gray area.

As federal legalization looks more and more likely, complicated questions will have to be answered. Chief among them is what to do with people who have criminal records because they sold or used cannabis. Last summer, New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, which would clean the records of those who’ve been convicted of federal marijuana crimes and also invest money into those communities—disproportionately poor and African American—which have been hit hardest by cannabis convictions.

There has been no suggestion from Donald Trump that he would support Booker’s ambitious bill, but he did say in June that he expects to support the bipartisan marijuana bill that was introduced into the Senate by Republican Colorado Senator Cory Gardner and Democratic Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, which places the emphasis on states’ rights.

“I support Senator Gardner,” Trump said. “I know exactly what he’s doing. We’re looking at it. But I probably will end up supporting that, yes.”

As for New York, theoretically the state’s law could change as early as next year. “The governor claims that he wants us to be ready to look at legislation by the beginning of next session, which is January,” said Savino. “We’ll see!”

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