Lack of public support and tough elections have turned New York’s suburbs into a battleground for legalization efforts.
With complete governing control in Albany, the Democratic Party has had little problem in implementing its broad policy agenda. Legalizing cannabis for adult-use has been a priority for Democrats over the past two years. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes together with Senator Liz Krueger have introduced legislation that would prioritize disadvantaged communities while implementing a broad regulatory framework for the production and sales of marijauna. Governor Andrew Cuomo has put forward a similar bill attempting to legalize through the budgetary process. Despite such efforts, the Democratic State Senate has been unable to secure a majority, reportedly two votes short as a result of seven notable holdouts; two are from Westchester, and five are from Long Island. Demographics, public opinion, and political realities in these suburban districts have made supporting legalization politically perilous.
In a Siena College poll from 2020, legalization has reached new heights of popularity, with 58% of New Yorkers in support of legalization and 38% in opposition. However, the suburban opinion on the issue diverges from this trend, with only 44% in favor and 48% in opposition. These suburban voters in Westchester and Long Island are the keys to legalization, but they have been hesitant to offer support.
Organized Opposition Places Pressure on Lawmakers
Representatives in Westchester and Long Island have cited public health and safety concerns as their reasoning for not supporting the legalization of cannabis. Senator Pete Harckham of Westchester stated, “Unless there were significant resources dedicated to suburban police departments to address DUI, school districts for education and to help manage risky behaviors and the public health arena for prevention and treatment, I could not support legalization.” Similar sentiments were echoed by Senator Shelley Mayer (Westchester), Jim Gaughran (Long Island), John Brooks (Long Island), Anna Kaplan (Long Island), and Todd Kaminsky (Long Island) who have been Parent-Teacher Associations and law enforcement groups. This hesitancy is largely cited as why efforts faltered during the 2019 legislative session.
The Executive Director of New York‘s Parent Teacher Association, Kyle Belokopitsky, has stated that legalization will send a “mixed message“ to young people about the “dangers of marijuana use.“ She also opined that “we must do more to protect our children from substance use disorders. This is the wrong move for New York State, our children, and their families.” The PTA has a significant amount of influence in NYC suburbs.
Marijuana Usage Prevalent in New York‘s Suburbs
Contrary to what the opposition to legalization seems to believe, high rates of marijuana usage already exist in most communities. The 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 50% of white Americans have used marijuana in their lifetime, in addition to 42% of Black Americans and 32% of Latino Americans. In the 2018 survey, 1 in 8 adolescents ages 12 to 17 used marijuana, making usage fairly common in youth across the country. Many health officials point to regulated adult access, quality standards, and decreasing the informal market as benefiting public health far more than prohibition.
Studies have also found that legalization does not necessarily increase the regular use of marijuana, especially among those under 21. NYU School of Medicine conducted a study from 2012 to 2015 that showed that there was no change in the prevalence of past-month or frequent use among teens aged 12 to 17. Further, in Colorado, teen use of marijuana dropped by more than 3 percentage points following legalization.
Racial Disparities in Arrests Create a Lack of Urgency
Most cannabis users in Westchester and Long Island never experience the harm of prohibition. For example, the majority of Westchester County is white (55%), yet white people only made up 14% of low-level marijuana possession arrests from 2013 to 2017. By contrast, black individuals, making up 14% of the population, accounted for 52% of arrests. Hispanics made up 24% of the population and 32% of arrests.
The dynamics are similar on Long Island. In Suffolk County, black and Hispanic people makeup 29% of the population but accounted for 66% of low-level marijuana possession arrests in 2017. The majority of the population is white (68%) but only accounted for 32% of arrests. In Nassau County, the black and Hispanic communities represent 30% of the population and 60% of arrests, compared to a 60% white population that represents 30% of arrests.
In these areas, groups most affected by prohibition are underrepresented in the electorate by a factor of nearly 2 to 1. This may explain why support for legalization in these communities is lower than in urban areas or even statewide.
The Politics of Legalization
Because the majority of voters in NYC suburbs aren‘t primarily affected by prohibition, there is no noticeable sense of urgency for legalization from representatives. Often, the Democratic holdouts have pointed to decriminalization efforts or expansion of the medical cannabis program in substitute to a fully regulated adult-use marketplace. Even if a representative may personally be in favor of legalization, publicly supporting legalization may hurt their chances of re-election in these politically tough districts. At the very least, support would not add many benefits in a tight election adding to the senators’ lack of urgency.
This is especially true for districts on Long Island where Partisan Voter Index (PVI) for each district reflects a politically tough district. Eastern Long Island (District 1) has a PVI of R+5, meaning it is Republican–leaning by a margin of 5 points, which is not enough to guarantee the outcome of any particular election. Democrats in this district routinely face tight elections where unpopular initiatives like adult-use legalization could make or break their campaigns. Democrats in Western Long Island (Districts 2 and 3) also face tight elections, where the PVI scores are R+3 and D+1. Here, the PVI scores are even closer to zero meaning the elections are routinely more completive.
Unsurprisingly, many of the state senators who have been tentative to support legalization serve constituents in these tough districts. These Long Island state senators known as the “Long Island Six“ act as an essential voting bloc in the Senate and are consistently hesitant to support controversial legislation. All six senators voted against the Green Light Bill, which provides driver‘s licenses to illegal immigrants, despite that only seven Democrats voted against the bill in total. There are few benefits to supporting legislation that only enjoys slight or negative public support if it may hurt their chances for re-election.
Over the past two years, the state budget has been seen as an essential vehicle to get legalization past the finish line. Instead of presenting legalization in a standalone vote, budget bills are considered “must-pass” and voting no may delay the budget from being passed on time as constitutionally mandated. Lawmakers are able to justify the vote as necessary and not a sign of support for legalization specifically. The budget has been used to pass controversial legislation including the recent Medicaid Redesign led by the Governor but opposed by many Democrats. This strategy, along with the fact no senators are up for re-election in 2021, has brightened hopes for legalization next year.
Sarah McGovern, Policy Researcher
Sarah McGovern is currently earning her Bachelor’s degree from Binghamton University majoring in Political Science and minoring in Russian and Theatre. She has previously worked for Congressman Tonko (NY-20) and Congressman Brindisi (NY-22), working with constituents and various government agencies.