ALBANY — Alfonse D’Amato is going from Senator Pothole to Senator Pot.
The former Republican U.S. senator from New York has been hired as a senior adviser by the Marijuana Policy Project, a national pro-pot group that for the first time is starting an affiliate in the Empire State.
The MPP says it was founded in 1995 to advocate nationally for “sensible and compassionate” laws governing pot use.
In New York, the group will initially focus on promoting ways to strengthen the state’s existing medical marijuana program, though D’Amato didn’t rule out the idea that the group will be part of any future discussions about legalizing the recreational use of pot for adults.
In addition to D’Amato, the MPP also hired attorney and community organizer Landon Dais to serve as its New York political director.
Both D’Amato — who served in the Senate from 1981 to 1999 — and Dais said that after a slow start, New York’s medical marijuana program can be transformed into a national leader.
“The (state) Health Department and the governor’s office have come a long way in making the utilization of medical marijuana easier, better, more professional,” D’Amato said. “That’s a work in progress.”
D’Amato said the MPP will push for Gov. Cuomo to sign into law a bill making medical marijuana available to veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. D’Amato said the group will also seek to educate the public and medical community on the value of medical marijuana.
“I’m happy to see we have really moved in the right direction in New York,” D’Amato said.
The former senator-turned lobbyist and consultant said the state should also start discussing whether to legalize pot for adults.
While he hasn’t yet taken a stand on the issue, D’Amato said “if we want to be realistic, you’ve got to look at the nation, what is taking place around us. It’s been implemented in (seven) states.”
D’Amato has joined the Marijuana Policy Project, a national pro-pot group.
Voters in Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada last November approved measures to legalize the recreational use of pot in their states. It’s also being discussed in New Jersey.
“The conversation and the discussion about adult use and the legalization of adult use is taking place and will be taking place,” he said. “There is no doubt that that is something that will come more and more to the forefront as time goes on.”
As for New York, “It’s not something we’re promoting but it’s something that’s taking place around the country and we can’t be naïve to it,” he said.
D’Amato’s linkage to a marijuana group is a change for a man who for most of his life was against the use of pot.
He said he began evolving on the issue during a discussion with radio personality Howard Stern in 2009. “I think I’m a conservative, but I don’t think I’m a right wing kook,” he said.
D’Amato also knocked U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, with whom he served in the Senate, for wanting the federal government to crack down on states that have legalized recreational- and even medicinal- marijuana.
“It’s a ridiculous position,” he said. “I say how can you on the one hand be for states’ rights and on the other hand say the states that have legalized the use of marijuana, that you’re not going to recognize that. You can’t be a states’ rights person only when you like what the states are doing and not what the feds are doing. It’s one or the other.”
State Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long, who backed D’Amato during his three terms in the Senate, said “I hope the former senator doesn’t partake in a move that would open the door for legalization of marijuana.”
But he said he wasn’t particularly surprised D’Amato hooked up with the Marijuana Policy Project.
“He’s a lobbyist now, certainly a person who opens the door for a lot of people,” Long said.