A wacky day in the weed world

Last updated on May 10, 2024

With help from Shawn Ness

New from New York

Happening now:

  • Gov. Kathy Hochul and regulators took steps to bolster the failing recreational marijuana industry.
  • A Buffalo Senate seat vacated by now-Rep. Tim Kennedy will remain empty through the remainder of the year.
  • Mayor Eric Adams kicked off his trip to Italy by offering praise of the Pope.
  • Hochul told reporters that she’s hopeful a deal can be reached to address the ills of social media on children.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has directed an overhaul of the Office of Cannabis Management after a rocky rollout of legalization and dispensary licenses.

TROUBLE IN THE WEED WORLD: Chris Alexander, the executive director of the Office of Cannabis Management, will leave at the end of his term to “pursue other opportunities,” Gov. Kathy Hochul told reporters today during a press conference announcing an overhaul of the state’s cannabis agency.

Meanwhile, the Cannabis Control Board was meeting at the same time to approve additional licenses and a shift in how licenses are processed.

The overlapping press conference and agency meeting were the culmination of years of New York’s troubled cannabis rollout amid an effort to redress the harms of past cannabis enforcement.

Entrepreneurs have long spoken out about the botched program, outlining the financial consequences of the slow licensing process.

Hochul acknowledged how those hardships have affected specific applicants who were supposed to be positioned to take advantage of an economic opportunity in the recreational marijuana industry, only to have suffered devastating financial consequences.

She told reporters about an applicant who invested more than $40,000, but still has yet to hear any news on their application — a story that is familiar to anyone who has been listening to public comments at the board meetings.

Staffing issues: Office of General Services Commissioner Jeanette Moy, who led a review released today on the system, told reporters that the state is recruiting additional staffers to review licenses in hopes of speeding up the process.

Agencies need to prioritize requests for staffing, she said.

“If the idea is that the office was sitting there not asking for additional staff … and all of a sudden somebody’s saying that we need to ask for additional staff, it sounds like that’s not accurate,” said Cannabis Control Board member Adam Perry during Friday’s meeting. “It sounds like the office has asked for additional staff.”

Perry was also critical that the board wasn’t provided with a draft of the report ahead of its public release, as is customary for external reviews.

Board Chair Tremaine Wright said the board had not been presented with a report and that she had requested that it receive an update on the findings of the audit.

Other new developments: The governor also announced a task force to crack down on the illicit cannabis market, as well as a $5 million grant program to help entrepreneurs impacted by past cannabis enforcement.

The board approved more than 100 additional licenses today, though only 31 more retailers. Cannabis regulators are also changing the licensing review process, and they plan to review significantly more applications than from the general application window last fall.

Not everyone was happy about the change.

Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said during the board meeting that the licensing process was supposed to be protected from the whims of the governor.

“People want to ask why folks of color do not stand up to be in these positions as elected officials… It’s because we get set up and then they cut our heads off in public. And that is what is happening to the OCM.” Frederique said of the state Office of Cannabis Management.

“It is not lost on me that for the first time we have Black leadership … We’re changing the goalposts and the cannabis board was supposed to be independent to protect the intentions of the work.” — Mona Zhang

Since Tim Kennedy was sworn in as a member of Congress, state Senate Democrats are now one member shy of the supermajority, and a special election is not expected to be held.

NO SPECIAL EXPECTED IN BUFFALO: Rep. Tim Kennedy took the oath of office for his new job on Monday evening, which leaves state Senate Democrats one vote shy of the 42-member supermajority they’ve enjoyed since 2021.

But senators are predicting there won’t be a special election to fill the seat before the November elections.

A 2021 law overhauled the rules for calling special elections. Governors now need to quickly call them, but they’re not allowed to do so if a vacancy is created after April 1 of an election year — unless there will be a special session sometime before January, in which case calling one is mandatory.

But that begs the question: How do we know there won’t be a special session later this year?

Albany doesn’t hold special sessions anymore. There are occasional “extraordinary” sessions — when the governor calls lawmakers back to Albany. And there are plenty of times when lawmakers come back to town to vote on issues like pay raises that are colloquially called “special sessions.”

But technically, those aren’t special sessions.

Those only occur when the Legislature comes back after adjourning for the year. And the Legislature hasn’t formally adjourned before New Year’s since the 1970s, thanks to members like state Sen. Neil Breslin holding two-minute sessions in the off weeks. — Bill Mahoney

Mayor Eric Adams praised Pope Francis' comments for migrants to be treated humanely.

NYC IS THE ROME OF AMERICA: Mayor Eric Adams today lauded Pope Francis’ calls for migrants to be treated humanely as he kicked off a multi-day visit to Italy that will culminate in an audience with the pontiff.

“His voice on these topics will cause those who would probably traditionally ignore the topic to sit up and take note,” Adams said in a news conference from Rome, adding the pope urges people to “just look at your fellow human being as your fellow brother or sister.”

He described the pope ahead of their meeting as a “credible messenger” in parts of the world struggling with influxes of newcomers, including New York City, where 195,000 migrants have come in the past two years.

The pope has challenged anti-immigration postures in Europe and in March penned a letter to migrants in Panama calling them “the face of Christ.”

Day One of Adams’ Roman holiday has been far from restful as he toured a subway tunnel under construction near the Colosseum, a slaughterhouse that was converted into an arthouse and sat with a roundtable of Nobel Peace Prize laureates.

The Democratic mayor is visiting Rome for the World Meeting on Human Fraternity, and his travel bill is being footed by the pope’s Fondazione Fratelli Tutti, according to City Hall. Emily Ngo

CULTURE CLUB CRIES CUTS: Do you really want to hurt them? The cultural institutions that get direct city funding say Adams didn’t restore nearly enough of their cuts, and they need another $53 million in the upcoming budget.

“Mr. Mayor, our city’s recovery is significant but fragile — and it cannot withstand uncertainty and continued cuts to culture,” reads the Culture for All petition from the Cultural Institutions Group, made up of 34 organizations ranging from Carnegie Hall to the Staten Island Zoo.

Adams cut $12 million from this year’s budget and the next in November, and another $13 million in January. The second cut was restored to fanfare last month, but the institutions want the initial cuts restored too, plus the same $40 million boost to baseline funding they fought for, and got, for last year’s budget.

The city allocated the Cultural Institutions Group about $141 million total in operating expenses for fiscal year 2024 budget.

The mayor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment, though they have previously defended their commitment to culture, while saying across-the-board cuts were needed to balance the budget.

A City Council spokesperson said the council will be prioritizing the full restoration in the budget. — Jeff Coltin

SCHOOL ENROLLMENT: New figures released by the New York City school system shows a projected increase in enrollment for the 2024-25 year.

An additional 778,000 students are expected to be enrolled, making it the first time enrollment increased year-over-year since before 2016.

“The proof is in the enrollment projections — through a mix of new and innovative programming, engaging academics, and genuine family and student engagement, our system is bouncing back from years of declining enrollment and leading the nation in public school education,” Schools Chancellor David Banks said in a statement.

Banks attributed the increase to three programs: NYC Reads, Student Pathways and the Summer Rising program. — Shawn Ness

James Simons, a hedge fund manager who was engaged in state policies, passed away at the age of 86.

JAMES SIMONS, 86: Hedge fund manager James Simons passed away at the age of 86 today. A former math professor at SUNY Stony Brook, Simons made a fortune in hedge funds in recent decades.

He had become a major figure in New York state politics and policy. During Gov. David Paterson’s administration, he lobbied the state for tuition hikes for SUNY to place it on sounder financial footing. He appeared with Gov. Kathy Hochul last year to announce $500 million for Stony Brook, one of the largest charitable donations in American history.

“Jim was a brilliant mathematician and understood the important role science and math play in our future,” Stony Brook alum Carl Heastie, the Assembly speaker, said in a statement. “Throughout his life he donated billions of dollars to support grand scientific endeavors and lower barriers of access to all those dreaming of innovation.”

Simons has also repeatedly been the top donor to New York Democrats.

He and his wife have given at least $7 million to state and local level candidates and parties since 2011, including $3.9 million to the state Democratic Committee, $370,000 to Andrew Cuomo and $205,000 to Hochul. — Bill Mahoney

HOCHUL’S SOCIAL: The effort to limit kids’ exposure to social media algorithms is getting some personal involvement from Hochul.

The governor today told reporters that the measure, which is meant to block social media firms from providing algorithmic feeds to the accounts of children, is her top end-of-session priority.

And unlike some bills that pass without involvement from the governor’s office, Hochul said her legal team is working with lawmakers to craft the final details of a potential agreement by June 6.

“We will find the right balance,” she said. “We want to make sure we protect the interests of children, number one, and make sure we’re creating an environment where these companies can thrive, but within limitations.”

Opponents believe algorithmic-powered feeds can be addicting and lead to mental health problems. But social media companies have warned the proposal would create free speech violations and likely face a court challenge. Nick Reisman

HER NO WORRIES ERA: New York Democrats want a proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution to galvanize turnout this election year. A Republican-backed challenge to its ballot status is putting a question mark on those plans.

But Hochul told reporters she is not concerned the amendment would be blocked from the ballot this November over procedural grounds.

The proposal would enshrine a broad array of rights such as the right to an abortion in the state constitution. Republicans won the first round of a lawsuit over the amendment’s placement on the ballot in a ruling that’s almost certain to be appealed.

The amendment is considered a key piece of the Democratic efforts to retake the House with the party trying to flip five seats in New York and take power in the narrowly divided chamber.

But even if the amendment is taken off the ballot, Hochul believes Democrats have a stable of issues to run on, including housing, anti-retail theft measures and cracking down on illegal cannabis businesses.

“There will be plenty of messaging that the Democrats can and will lean on — not the least of which is our strong support of reproductive rights,” she said. Nick Reisman

A newer, bigger, better bottle bill is facing the same old problems. (POLITICO Pro)

Orange County is the latest county to sue the state over proposals to host local elections in even-numbered years. (Times Union)

State Democrats are sure that the decision to toss out the Equal Rights Amendment will be challenged in the state’s highest court. (POLITICO Pro)