Robert Maciol, president of the state Sheriff’s Association and the Oneida County sheriff, spoke out against recreational marijuana during a news conference in Albany on Feb. 7, 2019.
Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau Chief
The anti-marijuana mobilization comes as Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, suggested the political debate may extend beyond the March 31 state budget deadline sought by Cuomo.
New York’s recreational marijuana battle sits on the frontline of a generational war over American cannabis laws. As debate heats up, USA TODAY Network New York is compiling answers to key questions about legalized cannabis. The findings will be updated each Monday as New York considers joining the 10 states that allow adults to use marijuana.
A growing opposition movement across law enforcement, education and public health is attacking the politically charged push to legalize recreational marijuana in New York.
Many of the powerful advocacy groups suggest passage could lead to spikes in drugged driving and marijuana-related health risks ranging from smoking hazards to psychotic episodes.
Some warn New York’s sudden rush towards legal marijuana ignores how profit-driven corporations hooked generations of Americans on alcohol, cigarettes and opioids, killing millions and straining public resources.
“We have many different intoxicants in our society, none of them are particularly helpful, and I think adding one more is not in society’s interest,” said Dr. Thomas Madejski, president of the Medical Society of The State of New York.
Much of the pushback to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s legal cannabis plan focused on the threat to children, despite the fact it would restrict use to 21 and above.
Cuomo proposed legalizing recreational marijuana as part of the state budget for the fiscal year that starts April 1, but some lawmakers are suggesting the program’s approval could be delayed until closer to the end of the legislative session in June.
“I’m not willing to accept deferral, and I’m going try like heck to get it done in the budget,” Cuomo said Feb. 5. “But were going to get it done one way or the other.”
In the meantime, opponents are urging Cuomo and lawmakers to reconsider their support.
“Even at 21, kids’ brains are not fully mature and they are at higher risk,” said Dr. Henry Neilley, an Albany-area pediatrician and a leader of the state branch of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “The biggest one is cognitive effects on the brain, and not only the younger they are when they start but the more they use marijuana, there is a long-term health risk involved.”
While opposition groups want more debate on the issue, they support expanded marijuana decriminalization, such as expunging criminal records for low-level offenses.
But some police officials said they continue to make arrests for marijuana, particularly sheriffs’ departments near the border with Vermont and Massachusetts, where pot is legal.
“We took an oath as sheriffs of New York state to keep our communities safe, and by legalizing marijuana, we will become less safe,” Oneida County Sheriff Robert Maciol, who is president of the state Sheriffs’ Association, said during a news conference Feb. 7 in Albany.
Andrew Cuomo lays out plan to legalize marijuana in New York
Jon Campbell, email@example.com
On the pro-marijuana side, advocates disputed that states with recreational cannabis have unique problems with drugged driving and teen use, calling many studies biased or flawed.
“States around the country are demonstrating that regulating marijuana works,” said Mason Tvert, a Marijuana Policy Project spokesman. “It allows folks to purchase marijuana safely, legally and from licensed, taxed businesses, rather than on the illegal market.”
If New York moves ahead, it would join 10 states that have legalized recreational marijuana. But legalized sales in New York wouldn’t begin until at least April 1, 2020, according to Cuomo’s office.
The Democratic governor’s plans would create a licensing program for growers, distributors and retailers, impose a 20 percent state tax and a 2 percent local tax and allow counties and large cities to ban marijuana sales locally.
The goal, supporters said, is to limit low-level marijuana arrests that can lead young people, particularly minorities, to end up in jail, hurting their future.
When the program is fully implemented, state officials estimate about $300 million per year in taxes, adding to the country’s already $8 billion-plus cannabis industry.
A majority of the money should go back into poor communities most hurt by the war on drugs, according to the Drug Policy Alliance:
“Given New York’s appalling history with racially biased marijuana enforcement, we must be bold and innovative in creating justice and equity,” said Kassandra Frederique, the group’s state director.
Big marijuana’s rise
Some of the anti-marijuana stances are connected to tobacco and alcohol companies investing in the cannabis industry.
For instance, Marlboro cigarette-maker Altria invested $1.8 billion in a leading Canadian cannabis firm poised for expansion stateside. Anheuser-Busch InBev, the maker of Budweiser, also has $50 million tied to developing marijuana-infused drinks.
Meanwhile, alcoholic beverage giant Constellation Brands, based in Victor, Ontario County, has investments in Canadian cannabis business Canopy Growth, which is building a $150 million hemp processing hub in the Binghamton area.
While leery of alcohol industry influence, Madejski emphasized the suspect ties between cigarettes and marijuana.
“It’s being promoted aggressively by this growing big tobacco morphing into big marijuana industry, which has new addictive products to sell to people,” he said.
Madejski noted Altria also made a $12.8 billion investment in e-cigarette maker Juul Labs, which is at the center of an ongoing federal government crackdown on youth vaping.
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“Legalization absolutely is the right thing to do,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a state budget hearing Feb. 11. “But it must be done in a way that protects health and safety and does not create a new corporatization of a new industry that causes the same problems we saw with the tobacco industry and the pharmaceutical industry.”
Efforts in Albany
Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a Virginia-based group which says it’s funded by small donors and advocates, has formed a New York chapter aimed at preventing the commercialization of marijuana.
With opponents from the lower Hudson Valley, the group rallied Feb. 11 at the state Capitol, standing next to a banner that used Cuomo’s words against him when he called marijuana a “gateway drug” as recently as 2017.
“We’re asking the governor and our legislators to simply slow down,” said Stephanie Marquesano, an Ardsley, Westchester County, attorney whose advocacy group, the harris project, is named after her late son who used marijuana before moving on to prescription pills.
“To that end, New Yorkers would benefit from a thorough examination of the states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use and carefully weigh the true impact.”
Hannah Kenny, a Harrison, Westchester County, resident who had voted for marijuana legalization in 2012 when she lived in Colorado, said she regrets her vote.
“Overnight, there were billboards up all over the place,” Kenney said at the news conference. “There were signs on the sides of buildings. The Denver Post was running constant articles about cannabis this and that, and the marketing push that was directed at children was like (snaps) that.”
Kyle Belokopitsky, executive director of the state Parent Teacher Association, spoke out against recreational marijuana during a news conference in Albany on Feb. 7, 2019.
Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau Chief
Indeed, much of New York’s cannabis debate has built upon what’s happening in other states already allowing recreational marijuana.
Opposition groups cited various data from states like Colorado on increases in teen marijuana use and deadly crashes linked to stoned driving.
Most research, however, remains inconclusive as to the role played by marijuana legalization, a fact that some contend should be enough reason to delay New York’s race to legal cannabis.
Further, medical studies of cannabis have recently gained traction after long being hindered due to its federal Schedule I classification alongside illegal drugs like heroin.
New York has had a medical marijuana program since 2016, and it would face a significant overhaul if recreational marijuana is approved.
School groups and county health officials in New York said the state is currently fighting the opioid epidemic and looking to further lower cigarette use.
Legalizing marijuana would be a step backwards, they said.
“Why are we giving them (young people) any more harm with the possible access to recreational marijuana?” asked Kyle Belokopitsky, executive director of the state Parent Teacher Association
“This will not serve our public; this will not serve our state.”
New York’s proposal comes after a thorough, yearlong review of other states’ experiences, Alphonso David, Cuomo’s counsel, testified at a budget hearing Wednesday.
He said New York needs to act because other states have legalized marijuana and because of the growth in the illegal market. He said about 800,000 marijuana arrests would be sealed under the bill, while other cases could be reheard in court.
State officials testified they don’t believe marijuana would be a gateway drug and could actually lower opioid abuse.
“We have the opportunity to establish a strong framework that addresses the significant social justice, economic justice, public safety and public health concerns that confront us today,” David said.
Protecting vulnerable New Yorkers
Some health experts proposed raising the minimum age to 25 from 21 to limit marijuana’s damage on developing minds.
Yet many asserted the potential normalizing of the drug through legalization endangers children, regardless of the minimum age.
Young people could inadvertently gain access to marijuana edibles or get addicted as teenagers, warned Sarah Ravenhall, executive director of the state Association of County Health Officials.
Sarah Ravenhall, executive director of the state Association of County Health Officials, spoke out against recreational marijuana during a news conference in Albany on Feb. 7, 2019.
Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau Chief
“We are equally concerned about the lack for research available to demonstrate long-term health outcomes of such a program,” she said. “This gap in evidence could hinder our ability to stand prepared to mitigate unforeseen health consequences.”
The state branch of the American Academy of Pediatrics supported Cuomo’s plan for age 21 and above, as well as diverting marijuana tax revenue to substance-abuse outreach and health education.
But the group also urged lawmakers to consider other broad regulations to limit the harm to children, such as outlawing any cannabis products that could appeal to kids.
While pushing for 25 and up, the Mental Health Association in New York State cited studies that have shown marijuana can cause symptoms of serious mental health problems, such as schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and sleep disorder.
“Let’s not go and just pass it immediately, let’s figure this out and have real discussions that are framed to respond to the public policy concerns,” said Glenn Liebman, the group’s chief executive officer.
Includes reporting by Albany Bureau correspondent Jon Campbell.
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