High time for pot talks?

Published Sep 21, 2018 at 4:01pm

UTICA -- State Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, convened a 10-person panel Thursday to get input on whether to legalize recreational marijuana in New York, and if so, how to do it.

Griffo said he wanted input now as the issue is likely coming before the Legislature. In July, the state Health Department, after direction of Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked for an examination on the question, issued a report saying the benefits of legalizing marijuana for non-medical uses could outweigh the drawbacks.

A series of public-input listening sessions has begun, and Griffo convened the group in his office at the state building in downtown Utica among people he knew had perspectives on the question. On one side were those who told him prohibition since the late 1930s hasn’t worked except to send marijuana use underground and perhaps drive otherwise law-abiding people into the hands of gangs and criminal enterprises. Among them were attorneys Richard Pertz and Mark Wolber, musician and retailer Gary Colmey of Rome and Legalize It CNY, and Landon Dais of MedMen, a legal-cannabis grower and retailer.

They also noted that possession for small amounts of marijuana can trigger a life-changing drug record for otherwise law abiding young people, such as blocking college aid and blacklisting them from many employers.

They also said ending the prohibition would bring marijuana use out in the open so it can be regulated and made safer, noting it’s sometimes now laced with contaminants and potentially dangerous chemicals, even insecticides. It can even help people avoid or fight addition to more destructive substances, Colmy suggested.

“Bring it above ground. Regulate it. Know who’s using it,” Dais said.

They also contended outlawing marijuana not only doesn’t work but wastes law enforcement and legal resources.

“The marijuana market exists,” Pertz said. “It is robust and is not impacted by anything we have done.”

On the skeptical side were Oneida County Sheriff Rob Maciol and Rome Police Captain Ed Stevens, representing the Oneida County Law Enforcement Coalition. Both said they have seen too many lives destroyed by substance abuse and believe marijuana is a gateway drug leading to heroin, cocaine and the like. Stevens said his impression is the move to legalization is a money grab by government eager for taxation.

Maciol said a Colorado sheriff told him that since that state legalized recreational marijuana, impaired-driving cases are “through the roof.” Addressing concerns that marijuana is over-emphasized by law enforcement, Maciol said none of the county jail inmates -- nearly 540 as of Thursday afternoon -- was there because of marijuana offenses.

Maciol said he believes his is a view held by many if not all of the state’s sheriffs. “We will fight this as hard as we can.”

Effects on health were concerns raised by those in the addiction-treatment realm, including Oneida County Public Health Director Phyllis Ellis, Cassandra Sheets of the Center for Family Life and Recovery, and Donna Vitagliano, president of Insight House. Their concerns were less about legality than matters like effects on children, on lung health, reaction with other drugs, on driving deaths, breastfeeding and pregnancy and the growth of marijuana vaping with e-cigarettes.

Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara said he’s not against legalization but wants to be sure it’s done right. For one thing, there is no validated, recognized legal way to determine driving impairment by marijuana analogous to the blood-alcohol content that can be used to make cases of driving while intoxicated or impaired. More people would use marijuana and then drive because they would no longer fear legal trouble, he said.

Griffo said he intends to keep an open mind as the issue plays out but his main concern is that if there is a change in the law, it’s done correctly, with ramifications considered. Top questions are clinical effects of marijuana use, details of enforcement of any resulting law, and economic impact. He also said he was skeptical of predictions of a windfall for state government and the economy if marijuana were fully legalized, regulated and taxed.

“This is an opportunity, in my opinion if you’re truly going to consider this issue, to do it right.”

New York adopted laws for medical cannabis in 2014.

In 1977, New York decriminalized private possession of small amounts of marijuana punishable by a fine of no more than $100, but public possession remains a misdemeanor, and the Health Department noted that this disproportionately affects certain groups with ramifications cycling through the economy and communities. The state report quoted state statistics showing that 48 percent of people arrested for simple possession since 2014 were black, 38 percent Hispanic and 9 percent white. Stop-and-frisk policies among some police agencies has a role, the Health Department said.

Dais said that while while middle-class people in many places imbibe in private at home, in neighborhoods like his in Harlem, New York City, many people congregate outside on stoops and the like, while those in public housing don’t risk expulsion for using at home and instead use marijuana outside in public places subject to arrest.

Cuomo announced a series of public-input listening sessions across the state this fall.

Griffo said he hopes to reconvene the panel again in early 2019. Colmey cited the report’s mention of a  2017 Marist Poll that showed that 52 percent of Americans 18 years of age or older have tried marijuana at some point in their lives, and 44 percent of these individuals currently use it.

The state report also said estimates from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicate that one in 10 New Yorkers used marijuana in the previous month.

Listening sessions

Syracuse - Tuesday, October 9, 2018 - DoubleTree by Hilton Syracuse - 6301 State Route 298, East Syracuse, NY 13057

Utica - Wednesday, October 10, 2018 -  Holiday Inn Utica - 1777 Burrstone Road, New Hartford, NY 13413 - Grand Ballroom

The full list is at https://www.ny.gov/regulated-marijuana/regulated-marijuana-listening-sessions#listening-sessions