Albany’s unlikely marijuana legalization champion sees interest, but no movement yet

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Liz Krueger. (Drum Major Institute via Flickr)
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Since last week, when State Senator Liz Krueger announced that she planned to introduce a bill legalizing marijuana in New York State, the Cuomo administration and the New York City Bar Association have reached out to her for more information.

Krueger also says that Councilman Stephen Levin, from Williamsburg, has told her he wants to sponsor a resolution supporting the effort.

Which is all well and good.

But as Krueger told me on Thursday, “I have no illusions.”

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That’s because she thinks her bill can only gain traction after two smaller, less consequential marijuana-related bills are passed, one that would legalize medical marijuana, and another that would decriminalize the public possession of small amounts of it (an issue in a lot of stop-and-frisk related arrests in New York City).

Both of those bills have sponsors in both houses of the state legislature. The governor has publicly endorsed the latter, and Krueger, a Democrat from the Upper East Side, believes that both would pass if only the coalition that leads the State Senate would bring them up for a vote.

“My bill is the next step beyond,” she said, and it will require a “multiyear educational process."

Right now (thanks in no small measure to Cuomo), the Senate is jointly controlled the Republicans and a handful of breakaway Democrats.

“It’s frustrating to me," said Krueger. “It’s true that we’ve still not even able to get the stop-and-frisk part of marijuana taken care of, and obviously that is quite a minor change in legalization. ... And, I believe, there are certainly the votes to pass that, but the joint majority leaders, [Democrat] Jeff Klein and [Republican] Dean Skelos, haven’t been willing to bring it to the floor. ... I am told the same is true for the medical marijuana bill, which is again not coming to the floor.”

“I’m quite sure they would pass the Assembly,” she added.

Neither the spokesman for the independent Democrats nor the Senate Republican spokesman had any comment for this article.

In the meantime, Krueger she'll continue to assess the political landscape and gather support for her more far-reaching effort, a decidedly longer haul.

“I want to see who comes out of the woods, pro and con,” she said “It’s been pretty interesting to me how many groups have reached out wanting to talk to me about it and appearing to be very open about it.”

She was referring to the bar association and the Cuomo administration and Levin, none of whom responded to requests for comment.

“We’re very excited to have the bar association work with us and review the legislation because, you know what, I don’t know whether they’ll endorse or not, but they’re actually working with us, and potentially coming out in support of this legislation would be huge.”

But the biggest get, and at this point an unlikely one, would be Cuomo himself. That, anyway, is what Krueger takes away from the sucessful movement to legalize same-sex marriage in New York State.

“What happened to marriage equality, you had a governor who said, 'I want to get there, I want to work with you to get there,'" she said.

"I’m certainly not going to say I think the governor would rush to fight for my bill,” Krueger added, pointing out that he’s been wishy washy even on the issue of medical marijuana. “But I’m also not going to say I have any basis to believe the governor’s coming out saying, 'Absolutely not, never,' right? So I’m really early in my process here.”

Why is Krueger carrying the standard for marijuana legalization, anyway? A white, 55-year old woman representing an Upper East Side district in which arrests for marijuana aren't exactly a monumental issue, and who says she last smoked weed at a Cheech and Chong movie in 1977, would seem to be an odd champion for the case. 

But Krueger says those things are precisely what make her the right person to get it done, or to try.

“When I started to discuss it with the drug policy specialists, they said, 'You know, you’re sort of a good one to carry this,'” she told me. “'You aren’t a stoner. You’re not someone who’s an obvious suspect for doing this.'"

"I have a very white, upper-middle-class district," she continued. "The kids of my constituents are not getting busted, and if they get busted, they have really good lawyers and they’re not ending up with criminal records.”

And yet, she said, “I saw the pain and suffering that our current laws were inflicting, disproportionately on young, poor people. I saw the amount of money we were spending in the criminal justice system unnecessarily. And I can come up with endless better ways to spend that money. I saw young people having their lives ruined before they ever got out of high school, because they ended up with the kind of criminal record that wouldn’t let them get college tuition assistance, or scholarships, or be eligible to apply for certain kinds of jobs.

"If you have a marijuana bust, you can never go to work as a policeman, or fireman or a sanitation worker. Like, seriously?”