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Prohibitionist New York Governor Warms to Marijuana Legalization. It Could Be a ‘Cynthia Nixon Effect.’

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was sailing for an unchallenged third term until fellow Democrat, actress Cynthia Nixon, threw her hat into the ring on March 19, 2018.

Cuomo, who called marijuana a “gateway drug” in February 2017, changed his attitude almost immediately after Nixon announced her support for legalized cannabis.

Nixon called Cuomo’s reversal toward marijuana and his shift to the left on a variety of issues “the Cynthia effect.”

Now, with several Cuomo-connected corruption scandals hitting the press and the Sept. 13, 2018, primary looming, it appears that the governor and his allies have doubled down on cannabis legalization.

On July 13, 2018, a New York state health department report elevated the positive effects of legal marijuana; on Aug. 1, New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. decriminalized pot smoking and possession in Manhattan, as did Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez the month before. On Aug. 3, 2018, Cuomo announced that his office was drafting a cannabis legalization bill.  

Nixon spokesperson Lauren Hitt questioned Cuomo’s timing and motives.

“Unlike Cynthia, the governor doesn’t support legalization because it’s a racial justice issue,” Hitt told Marijuana.com. “Cuomo’s using it to distract from the conviction of Alain Kaloyeros and from his recent Trumpian attack on a reporter.”

Kaloyeros, a former president of the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute near Utica and a Cuomo adviser, was convicted on July 12, 2018, of rigging bids for taxpayer-funded construction and real estate projects. On Aug. 2, 2018, one day before announcing his legalization bill, Cuomo lashed out at a reporter for cable TV news station NY1 after the journalist asked about a $400,000 political contribution from a company under federal investigation that later received millions in state funding.

Another top Cuomo aide, Joseph Percoco, was found guilty of three counts involving a bribery conspiracy in March 2018. For the fourth time, a judge delayed Percoco’s sentencing until after the Democratic primary. Percoco was Cuomo’s campaign manager and deputy executive secretary.

Meanwhile, Nixon has pledged not to accept any campaign donations from large corporations — and that includes cannabis companies. Cuomo now has $31 million in his coffers. Nixon has less than $1 million.

Cuomo’s campaign recently announced that he also eschewed big-business contributions and that 57 percent of his recent campaign donations were in amounts of $250 or less.

However, when Cuomo’s 88-page campaign finance filing became public, donations of less than $250 accounted for less than 2 percent of the nearly $6 million the governor raised between January and July 2018. The report also showed a number of people related to Cuomo’s staff and their families had cut numerous small-dollar checks. One person, Christopher Kim, made 69 individual donations in $1, $3 and $5 increments. According to the New York Times, Kim shares the same address on his filing as one of Cuomo’s campaign aides, Julia Yang.

MedMen and Columbia Care, among the largest cannabis companies in the country, were each awarded one of New York’s ten dispensary-operating licenses. MedMen Opportunity Fund and MedMen’s co-founder, Andrew Modlin, donated $90,000, according to the report. Nicholas Vita, CEO of Columbia Care, contributed $25,000 in 2017 to Cuomo’s re-election campaign.

“We’re going to see tens of millions in revenue off this industry. We need to be sure that a substantial chunk of it goes into the community and not just to rich white people who are getting rich off it,” Nixon told Marijuana.com.

“We need to establish marijuana equity to ensure that communities who have been most harmed by the war on drugs are prioritized in terms of licenses, small business loans and other supports they’ll need to be successful in the industry.”

Cuomo’s senior spokesperson Rich Azzopardi told Marijuana.com that the governor has not been swayed by the “Cynthia effect” regarding cannabis or anything else.

“The governor first ordered the report on the feasibility of a legal marijuana program in January, months before any primary materialized,” Azzopardi said. “The existence of similar programs in surrounding states changed the question from ‘legalize or don’t legalize’ to ‘how to implement it correctly.’”

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