Behind in the Polls, Liu Plays the Marijuana Card

By Kristen Meriwether
Kristen Meriwether
Kristen Meriwether
August 14, 2013 Updated: August 14, 2013

NEW YORK—John Liu called for the legalization of marijuana in New York City on Aug. 13. The announcement was made out of his comptroller’s office, although it is a position he will likely take with him on the campaign trail to drive voters to his sinking campaign.

Liu, who is vying for the Democratic mayoral nomination, polled just six percent in an Aug. 13 Quinnipiac poll. His campaign coffers pale in comparison to his colleagues, especially after he was denied $3.5 million in public matching funds by the Campaign Finance Board (CFB) in early August.

The CFB cited an internal audit which found “serious and pervasive” violations across the campaign’s fundraising, as well as evidence from a federal trial in which Liu’s former campaign treasurer and a fundraiser were found guilty of attempted wire fraud when they solicited straw donors.

The position may engage voters who are eager to see marijuana legalized, but if elected, Liu would be powerless to enact such a law. The state legislature would need to pass the law, and get Gov. Cuomo to sign off on it.

Albany failed to pass a measure to decriminalize marijuana this past session, which ended in June.

Cuomo has steadfastly opposed any decriminalization efforts and is seen as unlikely to waver from that stance, particularly as he approaches a re-election campaign next year. The Republicans who share majority control of the Senate have also opposed decriminalization proposals. Neither Cuomo nor the Senate GOP leadership would comment on Liu’s proposal.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose support could sway minds in Albany, has also long opposed efforts to legalize marijuana.

Gabriel Sayegh, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that supports the proposal, said it would be unlikely the State Legislature would take up the issue in 2014.

When asked how he would overcome the state obstacle, Liu acknowledged the onus would be on the state for his proposal to come to fruition.

The report issued by Liu claimed the black market for marijuana in New York City is $1.65 billion annually. With a black market, buyers sell the drug untaxed, and unregulated. Liu proposed a tax of 20 percent, as well as a bevy of regulations, which would likely come through the Department of Health, and the Department of Consumer Affairs.

When asked what mechanism he would use to entice sellers making 100 percent profit in an unregulated world to voluntarily sell at stores with a tax and heavy regulation, Liu stammered before saying, “I have no doubt legalizing, regulating, and taxing it will be far more effective than people going underground to get it criminally.”

Liu’s idea, which comes just under 30 days before the Democratic primary, is not a new one in the race. Sal Albanese, also running on the Democratic line, and Republican Joe Lhota, have both supported a similar measure.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kristen Meriwether
Kristen Meriwether