NY Governor Cuomo Complicates Dems' Efforts as Party of Drug Reform

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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo greets audience members before delivering his State of the State address in New York City, January 9. Reuters

This article originally appeared on the International Business Times.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo waded into the national debate over drug policy this week, declaring his opposition to legalizing cannabis and asserting (despite research to the contrary) that using pot leads to the use of other, stronger narcotics. Cuomo has long promoted the alcohol industry, whose donors have bankrolled his election campaigns and whose businesses could be adversely affected by marijuana legalization.

Cuomo’s office did not respond to International Business Times’ request for comment about marijuana-related scientific research or about his support for the alcohol industry.

Cuomo’s move could carry significant political implications in the ongoing debate over drug policy because the New York Democrat is widely considered a potential 2020 presidential contender. Gallup’s most recent poll shows that 60 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana—the largest show of support in the survey’s 47-year history. Democrats could benefit from that support if President Trump's administration cracks down on states that have legalized marijuana, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions has signalled.

Pro-legalization language is in the Democratic party’s official platform, but Cuomo could complicate his party's efforts to present itself as a supporter of drug policy reform. And his position might be problematic for him in a Democratic presidential primary, pitting him against most of his own party’s voters: Polls show particularly strong support for legalization among registered Democrats. 

During a Wednesday press conference, Cuomo said cannabis is “a gateway drug, and marijuana leads to other drugs and there’s a lot of proof that that’s true... There’s two sides to the argument. But I, as of this date, I am unconvinced on recreational marijuana.”

As Politico first reported, the National Institute of Health notes that while some scientific “findings are consistent with the idea of marijuana as a ‘gateway drug,’” in fact “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances.” Some marijuana opponents have continued using the “gateway drug” argument to oppose legalization, even as that argument continues to be challenged by science.

What is far less disputed by scientists and physicians is the comparison between marijuana and alcohol — with a wave of research concluding that the latter is more dangerous, and more definitively defined as a gateway drug. Many drug reform groups have made such a comparison central to their campaigns for legalization, and it had been echoed by President Obama.

The growing evidence that alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana, however, has not stopped Cuomo from aggressively promoting alcohol — even as he now voices concern about the safety of marijuana.

The governor signed a bill creating special tax incentives for New York City alcohol producers. He has held a series of public summits to tout the production and consumption of alcohol in his state and signed legislation that his office boasted would “help expand recreational production of beer, wine and cider in New York State.” Cuomo is pushing lawmakers to approve a measure that would allow movie theaters to facilitate and promote alcohol consumption at all of their locations throughout the state.

The alcohol industry has been among the key opponents of marijuana legalization measures, with some major alcohol industry players explicitly saying in corporate filings that they fear recreational cannabis will cut into their profits.

The industry is also a major financial backer of Cuomo’s political career. His election campaigns have drawn more than $900,000 from alcohol-linked donors, according to data compiled by the National Institute on Money In State Politics. Cuomo's New York State Democratic Party has pulled in another $200,000 from such donors since 2010.

While Cuomo joins neighboring New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, in positioning himself against legalization measures such as those passed in Colorado, Washington and California, he has supported some efforts to relax marijuana laws. Reversing his previous opposition to the idea, Cuomo supported allowing marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes. He is also backing a measure to reduce the punishment for possession of small amounts of the drug.

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