Governor’s Bill to Legalize Marijuana Denounced by Police

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by Robert Kimmel –

Don’t do it! In the interest of public safety.” The message could not be more explicit. It comes from Irvington’s Chief of Police Michael Cerone in response to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to legalize recreational marijuana use in New York State. “If you were to ask all the chiefs, commissioners and sheriffs, and all law enforcement officials throughout the state and nation, you will hear one voice… and it would stress that message,” Cerone stated.

Cuomo introduced the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act earlier this year in the State Assembly and Senate, and hoped to have it passed by April 1, framed within his Executive Budget due for action by that date. The law would permit the sale of marijuana to persons over the age of 21, and remove criminal records for those convicted of having used the substance, based on the new regulations. The rules would also allow for households to grow a limited number of marijuana plants. The taxes imposed on its cultivation and wholesale distribution would bring in an estimated $300 million annually to the state within three years.

Cerone is Executive Director of the Westchester County Chief of Police Association which also released a statement opposing the Governor’s “push for the rapid legalization of marijuana. Based on public safety and health concerns, we as an organization feel compelled to offer our opinion, as stakeholders dealing with the aftermath of such legislation,” the Chiefs stated.

“The instances of impaired driving will increase proportionally with the proliferation of regulated marijuana,” the County Chiefs predicted, citing statistics from Colorado, where recreational marijuana use is permitted. Traffic fatalities in Colorado jumped by 62% in 2014, the first year of marijuana legalization. “This will endanger the general public and increase the number of injuries and fatalities on the roadways of New York.”  The statement went on to convey concerns “about the negative effects that legalization will have on adolescents,” and that, “We believe that marijuana is a gateway drug. Adolescents will have easier access to the drug.”

“We would implore the legislature to consider the negative ramifications of legalization on public safety versus the desire of some seeking financial gain and a segment of the public that crave easier access to a potentially dangerous intoxicant,” the County Chief’s pronounced. They stated they were in agreement with the opinion of the New York State Association of Police Chiefs, which also declared its opposition to recreational marijuana legalization.

“There are already too many lives being lost with alcohol use, illegal and prescription drug use on our roadways,” Cerone asserted in his separate statement. “Legalization will increase the use of driving under the influence of drugs, and the loss of lives will continue to rise on all the state roadways. I don’t think we will be successful in keeping it out of the hands of persons under 21.”

Tarrytown Chief of Police John Barbelet was clearly in full support of the County Chief’s position. “I do not favor or condone the recreational use of marijuana,” he said. Barbelet also emphasized the need for “the public to better understand the difference between the recreational and medical use of marijuana.” The medical use of marijuana was legalized in New York State in 2014, and as of late last year more than 62,000 certified patients were using it.

Traffic fatalities in Colorado jumped by 62% in
2014, the first year of marijuana legalization.
— Statistics cited from Colorado, where recreational marijuana use is permitted.

Barbelet also referenced Colorado’s increased traffic death rate starting with the legalization of recreational marijuana in that state, and posed the question, “How do we enforce the law against someone driving around who has been smoking marijuana?”  He maintained that there were no scientific street tests for that problem matching the screening tests used to detect drunken driving. New York, according to some estimates, would need at least 650 new trained Drug Recognition Experts to identify drivers impaired by the use of marijuana on state roadways.

In January, a Quinnipiac poll of all demographic segments of the state’s population showed 65 percent in support, while 31 percent were against legalization. The remainder were “unsure.”

The proposed New York legalization law would include a campaign aimed at curbing driving while impaired, and would also fund research on roadside testing, as well as the special training of law officers as Drug Recognition Experts. The Governor’s measure also allows large towns and cities with a population of more than 100,000 to prohibit the sale of recreational marijuana with local laws.

Westchester County District Attorney Anthony Scarpino has already changed the penalty for low-level marijuana offenses. In January, he announced that possession of two ounces or less of marijuana will not be subject to criminal prosecution by his office. However, a misdemeanor violation could still be charged under the law for someone found smoking pot in a public place.  As Barbelet pointed out, marijuana use is still illegal in New York State, and police can still make arrests.

Recent statewide polling has indicated a majority of the public supports the legalization of recreational marijuana. In January, a Quinnipiac poll of all demographic segments of the state’s population showed 65 percent in support, while 31 percent were against legalization. The remainder were “unsure.”

The focus now is on the State legislature’s next move on Cuomo’s bill, but action on the measure likely will not take place by April 1, as the governor wants. Some legislators, including Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, appear to be in no rush to pass the legislation. Heastie has described it as complex and that more time may be needed following that date, to study its effects.

Even if the legislature were to pass the bill in April, its full outcomes will not be immediate. It calls initially for the establishment of an Office of Cannabis Management responsible for virtually all aspects of recreational marijuana from cultivation, licensing, production, and distribution, to sales and taxation.

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