ALBANY — New York's Roman Catholic bishops are stepping up their effort to derail a marijuana legalization measure, warning such a move could add to public health risks amid the COVID-19 epidemic.

A bill memo opposing legalization of recreational cannabis was issued Monday by the New York State Catholic Conference, the advocacy arm of the bishops.

The conference includes Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, leader of both the Albany and Buffalo dioceses that include Oneonta and Niagara County, respectively, and Bishop Terry LaValley of Ogdensburg, whose diocese includes Plattsburgh.

The memo warns New York is the nation's epicenter for the virus outbreak and allowing legalized marijuana now would increase the risk of "bad outcomes" for those who become sick.

"This virus causes severe respiratory illness in many of those who are infected," the bishops said. "It would be the height of irresponsibility for the state to legalize a substance designed to be inhaled deeply into the lungs of the user at this time in particular."

Gov. Andew Cuomo supports legalization. He said last month he will visit states that allow pot shops to research how the market is regulated. Those plans are now on hold due to the health crisis caused by the virus.

But the governor offered no indication Monday that he is stepping back from the legalization measure stitched into his proposed state budget package.

"There are many policy issues that I laid out back in January and we're going to pursue all of them," he said.

Statewide polling has shown legalization is supported by most New York voters.

Kassandra Frederique, managing director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that supports legal weed, said the measure should seek to achieve "economic justice" in communities impacted by marijuana prosecutions.

"Our regulation framework must center on people who have been impacted by the drug war, create equity and diversity, and support small businesses and farmers." Frederique said.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at


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