Many supporting the state referendum to initiate a constitutional convention cite as motive an opportunity to implement term limits, eliminate gerrymandered districts, and remove incumbent finance laws. Other supporters are claiming a very different reason for voting yes, simply wanting marijuana legal in the state of New York.
Frustrated by the inability to win Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo to the legalization cause, these advocates now see a convention of delegates gathering to consider adjusting the constitution as a way of relaxing marijuana laws. Jerome Dewald, a resident of Manhattan who organized a yes vote campaign called Restrict & Regulate, said, “In New York, we have this singular opportunity.”
The idea does not sell easily. There is no guarantee anywhere on the statewide ballot that any issue would be up for consideration in a convention, regardless of the idea, whether anti-corruption or marijuana. Instead, lawmakers are asking New Yorkers if delegates should amend the state’s constitution via a convention.
If the proposal passes, a process would begin to select delegates in a separate election next year and hold the convention sometime in 2019. However, polls are evenly balanced. In July, a Siena College poll found that 49 percent of adults in New York support legalizing cannabis for recreational use, but a nearly equal 47 percent are against allowing it.
“Our task is not to persuade people,” Dewald explained. “That was done already. Our task is to wake people up and tell them there is a viable pathway to legalizing marijuana in New York State and deal with it in a rational way, and in a way that is unprecedented.” Dewald describes himself as a financial investor who has had holdings in start-up pot firms.
Some of the companies Dewald invested in applied for cultivation and selling licenses several years ago, when New York first reviewed and issued them after legalizing medical marijuana. Those opposing both the efforts to legalize and the constitutional convention claim that Dewald’s statements give voters even more incentive to reject the proposal next month.
“It is a clear reason why I am opposed to having a constitutional convention, because you never know what whacky ideas will come of it, and this is one of them,” opined chairperson of the state Conservative Party, Mike Long.
In an attempt to attract supporters, Restrict & Regulate in New York State has worked organizationally with some of the groups supporting the proposal. It is reaching out to those associated with other groups and causes that Dewald believes would favor cannabis legalization, including those on the left supporting Senator Bernie Sanders, as well as those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.
The campaign, albeit low-cost, is proving effective at finding these people on social media networks and directing them to “landing pages” on websites offering detailed information about this proposal. However, it is not luring some of the leading groups on drug policy, those who have experience working within New York Legislature to relax drug laws, such as the Marijuana Policy Project based in Washington, D.C.
High profile groups such as the Marijuana Policy Project have proven instrumental in drafting ballot campaigns that send state legislature bodies doing end-runs, an approach frequently successful where cannabis has been legalized or decriminalized. Deputy state director in New York of the Drug Policy Alliance, Melissa Moore, says that her group advocates for legalization, but is neutral on the proposal.
Instead, the group, which has its base in Manhattan, is prioritizing its focus on legislation to regulate and legalize weed, such as the plan introduced by Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat from Buffalo, and Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan. The Drug Policy Alliance believes that any measure to legalize should address expunging arrest records for past possession of marijuana.
Stokes said that these types of arrest records were currently affecting over 800,000 people arrested over the last two decades in New York. The group is hesitant to participate in the convention campaign because it has alliances in place already on its wider policy agenda with several of the groups actively opposing Proposal 1.
According to Moore, “We recognize that opening up the state constitution would also touch on a lot of issues well beyond marijuana legalization, many of which could potentially end up being altered in ways that would hurt our members or our allies, who live more than single-issue lives.” Of course, groups on both sides are funding their causes.
Just last week, the Buffalo News reported that one group opposing Proposal 1, funded by various labor unions almost exclusively, successfully raised $1.5 million for its campaign to prevent the convention from happening. Of the groups supporting the convention, four of them have brought in just under $400,000 to ensure it goes ahead.
Meanwhile, the pro-pot group Restrict & Regulate reported in July that it had raised nearly $135,000. All of that money, except for $1,300 of it, arrived in the form of “in-kind” donations from Dewald himself, for such activities as using his home office to work on Proposal 1. The group submitted its disclosure on Monday, over a week past the deadline.
Restrict & Regulate gave the state elections board its 32-day required disclosure, demonstrating that it raised $102,500 since July this year. However, another round of in-kind donations from Dewald accounted for $96,000 of those monies. Since July, the group reported only $9,700 in expenditures for its aggressive lobbying campaign.
Several obstacles have made raising money a challenge, Dewald claimed. They include the overwhelming opposition of unions to Proposal 1, as well as the effort involved in persuading potential donors that the pot question would even have a place in the convention if a gathering convened. Another money-raising hurdle for the group is Dewald’s criminal record.
Michigan courts convicted Dewald of larceny and fraud charges related to two political action committees he formed during the 2000 presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush. One solicited donations from people supporting Gore, while the other from people backing Bush. Dewald maintains his innocence, calling the saga a “story of injustice,” yet acknowledged its effect on donors.
In order for Proposal 1 to win in this off-election year, Dewald believes that they will need to get as many as 800,000 people to support a constitutional convention, but they may be able to achieve it with just 600,000 yes votes.