Medical marijuana is wildly popular in New York State. Roughly 9 in 10 New Yorkers think it should be legal.
So why isn’t it?
The answer: State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican from Long Island.
A medical marijuana bill would likely find an easy road to passage in the State Assembly, one of two bodies that make up the legislature. Such measures have passed four times in the Assembly in recent years, and the Democrat-led Assembly even included a measure to legalize medical pot in its annual budget this year.
The issue faces an uncertain future in the other house of the legislature, however: the Republican-controlled State Senate, with Skelos at the helm.
Skelos did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but he has opposed medical marijuana in the past. He’s more diplomatic these days, with four of his Republican colleagues in the State Senate openly supporting a medical program. But he’s not endorsing medical pot.
“There’s no question some members have indicated their support for it,” Skelos said in March, “but at the appropriate time we’ll discuss and see if we take any action legislatively.”
So far, that hasn’t happened.
It’s only April. But in an election year, the window to pass politically charged legislation is nearly closed.
That has sent backers of the medical marijuana bill, known as the Compassionate Care Act, looking for alternatives.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island), is hoping to use a legislative maneuver to circumvent Skelos and bring the bill to a vote on the floor of the State Senate. If she can get to a vote, Savino believes the legislation has enough supporters, both Democrats and Republicans, for it to pass.
Getting there won’t be particularly easy.
First, the bill would need to pass through the State Senate’s health committee, which is controlled by Republicans. After that, Savino would need to convince Republican supporters of medical marijuana to buck their party and sign a petition to bring the measure to the floor for a vote.
All of that seems like a high bar to clear, despite the near-unanimous public support for the program.
Even demographic groups that are traditionally more conservative on marijuana issues back medical use in New York. In the 65 and older age bracket, 86 percent support legalizing medical marijuana, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.
While Skelos may be the obstructionist keeping medical marijuana from a vote in New York, Democrats there aren’t necessarily cheerleaders, either.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, endorsed medical marijuana earlier this year, and he is using his executive power to create a narrow program, which would supply marijuana to 20 hospitals.
Yet Cuomo’s program is more conservative than most measures around the country. A champion of medical marijuana in the Assembly, Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan), called Cuomo’s proposal "limited and cumbersome” back in January.
While the Republican leadership in the State Senate may be the primary impediment to passage, some Assembly Democrats don’t sound overly enthusiastic, either.
On Monday, Sheldon Silver, the Democratic speaker for the New York State Assembly, expressed doubt about medical pot this year.
“I don't think it has a future in this session,” he said. “There was no interest from the other parties.”
A spokesperson for Silver later clarified that he was emphasizing the need for the Senate to take action, according to Capital New York.
The takeaway: Any medical marijuana bill will have a tough road to passage unless Skelos allows a vote in the State Senate.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.