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New Administration Provides Opportunity for Fresh Take on Cannabis

New York’s gubernatorial politics are currently in a state of turmoil, others might call it a state of flux—conditions are dynamic either way you look at it. State Attorney General Letitia James’ investigation of disgraced Governor Andrew Cuomo’s sexual misconduct scandal brought down one of the most powerful politicians in New York, if not the country. But not every consequence of a scandal is negative—especially in politics. Sometimes scandals move the needle in the right direction, creating a window of opportunity for savvy operators to make meaningful policy change.

As Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul takes the reins of executive leadership in the Empire State this week–—now may be that window for adult-use cannabis.

Hochul, New York’s first female governor, ascends to the top spot Tuesday and the cannabis industry is hopeful that she will quickly establish the regulatory structure necessary for the adult-use industry to get off the ground. Such policy formation stalled after the landmark Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) was signed into law on March 31, 2021. In yet another episode of Cuomo’s bullying—what some have called a Machiavellian leadership style—he tied the appointment of the Cannabis Control Board (CCB) and the development of the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) to MTA reform that had stalled in the legislature, effectively dooming the prospect of getting anything done on either front.

With the recent Covid-19 surge spurred by Delta Variant and related issues such as rental assistance and masking requirements, the new governor will certainly have a lot on her plate. And while issues of public health and safety are deserving of their place and the front of the line on the governor’s desk, cannabis advocates are optimistic that Hochul will make cannabis a priority too.

And it’s not just the top spot in the executive branch that’s up for grabs; Hochul may very well bring on a new team of executive leadership—installing her own people as high-level appointees throughout the executive bureaucracy as well as in key staffing position, as every executive has a right to do. On Monday, for instance, Hochul announced the appointment of Karen Persichelli Keough and Elizabeth Fine to senior roles in her incoming administration as Secretary to the Governor and Counsel to the Governor, respectively.

It is still unclear as to whether Howard Zucker, Commission of the Department of Health (DOH) will keep his job under the new governor. DOH currently manages the state’s cannabinoid hemp and medical marijuana programs and according to a recent piece in the Post, the Department is already in the midst of a staffing crisis, due to the pandemic. Though DOH will eventually transition its oversight of the state’s cannabinoid hemp and medical programs to the CCB and OCM once established, it currently plays a vital role in the management of such programs. The MRTA mandates that control be relinquished to the CCB six months after the board is fully appointed but in the meantime, this agency will continue to play a key role in the state’s regulated hemp and medical industries and its leadership is a matter a great concern to current industry operators.

An attorney by trade, Hochul hails from Buffalo, an area notably supportive of adult-use cannabis—State Assembly Majority Leader, Crystal Peoples-Stokes, also represents the area and was a primary sponsor of the MRTA. Peoples-Stokes remains a major adult-use cannabis advocate and continues to call for the expedient establishment of the CCB and OCM. Hochul and Peoples-Stokes have long been political allies, an alliance which may indicate that that the incoming governor will take a friendlier—and more proactive—stance on adult-use cannabis policy than her beleaguered predecessor.

Though Hochul’s prior public statements on cannabis are limited, they include a tweet posted earlier this year in support of legalization where she stated, “It's time to finally legalize recreational marijuana and create an equitable adult-use cannabis program that generates much-needed revenue for New York.” Additionally, she has said that legalization was “long overdue” as well as suggesting that the state and its citizens could benefit from the economic boom and tax revenue generated by legalization.

With the recent announcement that Hochul intends run for reelection to win to the governor’s office outright and in her own right, there are certainly political incentives to expedient implementation of MRTA. If she wants to secure the cannabis vote, she ought to take meaningful steps immediately, including relevant gubernatorial appointments to the CCB, OCM and promoting the prompt issuance of adult-use regulations and applications.

It’s a new day with a new governor in New York—let’s start fresh and make it a good one for cannabis.

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