Wednesday afternoon, at the last pre-primary Albany mayoral debate, all three Democratic candidates—Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin, Common Councilman Frank Commisso, Jr., and incumbent Kathy Sheehan—said they support legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.
Their answers came during a “lightning round,” so the candidates didn’t have time to delve into specifics. Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized weed for adults, and cities have explored different degrees of decriminalization, but the drug remains illegal at the federal level. Taking the candidates at their word, we wondered: Would they introduce an Albany-wide law or policy—or would they prefer to see change happen at the state or federal level?
For Mayor Sheehan, it’s the latter, chief of staff Brian Shea told The Alt in an email on Thursday. “Ideally, the federal government would handle this. In the absence of that, [the mayor] is supportive of a bill authored by Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes of Buffalo and Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan that would regulate and tax marijuana at the state level.” (We wrote about that law’s re-introduction in June.)
The Commisso and McLaughlin campaigns did not respond to our requests for specifics on their stances.
Tokin’ around the state
Incidentally, cannabis also cropped up in New York City’s Democratic mayoral debate the same night. Challenger Sal Albanese “supports legalizing recreational marijuana,” Gotham Gazette reported, “but [Mayor Bill de Blasio] does not, instead saying he wants to continue to see how it goes in other locales.”
On this, then, de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo—longtime rivals—seem in sync. Asked by a reporter earlier this year why he was “kind of a stick in the mud about recreational marijuana,” Gov. Cuomo called it a “gateway drug.”
The Alt emailed several other prominent Democratic politicians in the region and state on Thursday, asking about their stance on legal weed. We did not receive an immediate response from the offices of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, state Assemblyman John McDonald, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, or the three Democratic candidates for mayor of Buffalo.
Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, who has endorsed Mayor Sheehan, told The Alt in email that while she has voted “to decriminalize the possession and use of marijuana as well as the sale and use of medicinal marijuana,” she does not support legalization, citing “serious concerns about marijuana being a gateway drug” and its potential impact on the adolescent brain.
“There has been a dramatic increase in drug and opioid abuse nationwide that has destroyed many people’s lives and if marijuana usage has played any role, now is not the time to expand its use through legalization,” Fahy wrote. “That said, I will continue to…closely monitor the impact of marijuana legalization in other states.”
We also heard from Congressman Paul Tonko’s office. The legislator, who also endorsed the mayor this year, “has been a strong supporter of decriminalization during his time in Congress,” communications director Matt Sonneborn said in an email. “He has supported Congressional action to block [the Department of Justice] from cracking down on states that adopt medical marijuana laws, and he remains an advocate for ending the expensive, ineffective and immoral ‘war on drugs.’
“That said, [Rep. Tonko] did not back an amendment to a bill a few years ago that would also have blocked DOJ from intervening in states that adopt recreational marijuana laws, expressing concerns tied to the negative effects that a blanket enforcement ban could have on public health and the economy especially if marijuana production was [allowed] to become corporate, vertically integrated, [and] heavily marketed,” Sonneborn continued. “Also worth noting that he voted on that measure in the context of the Obama Administration’s stated policy of limited enforcement on this issue, a policy the current AG [Jeff Sessions] has gone out of his way to counteract.”
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey recently introduced a bill that would legalize marijuana at the federal level.
There were 205 arrests for marijuana possession last year in Albany County, according to statistics compiled by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, and more than 25,000 such arrests statewide.
Photo credit: University at Albany