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Politics and Government

Opponents of legalizing marijuana speak out

Karen DeWitt
Oneida County Sheriff Robert Maciol speaks at a press conference Thursday on the negative consequences of legalizing marijuana

It seems inevitable that New York state will legalize recreational marijuana sometime this year, now that the governor and leaders of the Legislature all agree that it should happen.

But a coalition of groups, including county sheriffs and the PTA, warns of moving too quickly. The groups said there are several serious factors to consider, including the potential of increased traffic deaths and stepped-up drug use by teens and children.

The sheriffs and police chiefs associations, along with county health officials, AAA and the PTA, said they know they’ve been slow to voice their concerns as the push to allow adults to use marijuana in New York has gained momentum.

But they said there are some negative consequences that need to be thought through, before lawmakers act.

Oneida County Sheriff Rob Maciol is president of the New York State Sheriffs’ Association.

“People will die as a result of folks making the destructive decision of using marijuana and then operating a motor vehicle,” Maciol said. “It’s the deputies and the police officers that are going to be knocking on the door at 3 a.m.”

John Aresta, the police chief in Malverne on Long Island, heads the New York Association of Chiefs of Police. He said law enforcement is already overwhelmed with the opioid crisis, and doesn’t look forward to having another drug to contend with.

“We’re putting all our efforts toward stopping opioids,” Aresta said. “And now we’re going to turn around and say, ‘But it’s OK to go and smoke marijuana.’ ”

He criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo for changing his position on legalizing recreational pot. Two years ago, Cuomo said he thought using marijuana led to harder drugs, but now, he has proposed in his budget legalizing the substance.

“In 2017, this was a gateway drug. Now in 2019, it’s not?” Aresta asked. “And I have not seen any proof to say it’s not a gateway drug.”

Cuomo said he changed his mind on legalizing marijuana after neighboring states allowed the drug to be sold to adults.

County health officials from across the state also are against legalization. Their association’s executive director, Sarah Ravenhall, said the use of marijuana can cause increased risk of stroke, respiratory problems and unintended exposure of the drug to children.

She said because the drug has been illegal in the United States for so long, not enough research has been conducted into the long-term effects of marijuana use, leaving health officials in the dark about potential future harm.

“There will be a public health impact,” Ravenhall said.

The New York State PTA’s Kyle Belokopitsky said permitting adults to use marijuana in New York would increase the use of the drug among children. She compared it to the use of tobacco products among children.

“One in five of our children in the past month has vaped. Nearly a million of our children in our schools have smoked tobacco,” Belokopitsky said. “This will filter down to them.” 

The groups said if the measure is going to be approved, the sheriffs and police departments would need more funding to retrain or even replace their drug-sniffing dogs, who have been trained to detect marijuana along with other substances. They also said they need to hire and train more drug recognition experts to help determine whether marijuana is a factor in a traffic accident, something that is difficult to do because the THC in the drug stays in the bloodstream for a long time after use. 

Belokopitsky said she plans to bring 100 parents to the state Capitol next week to lobby lawmakers to at least take the proposal out of the state budget and devote more time to addressing opponents’ concerns.

“This is not a budget issue,” Belokopitsky said. “This cannot be rushed.” 

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie already has called for more time to work out details of the bill, and put off the measure to legalize marijuana until later in the spring after the budget has passed. Kerri Biche, a spokesperson for Heastie, said his main concern is ensuring that communities negatively affected by marijuana prohibition receive economic benefits and opportunities.

A spokesperson for Cuomo, Tyrone Stevens, said the governor’s office reached out to law enforcement when crafting the legislation. He said he believes more drug recognition experts can be funded through tax revenue generated from sales. And he said any new law would enact more stringent rules against driving while under the influence.