Local Officials Await State Action on Proposed Marijuana Legalization

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by Robert Kimmel – 

County and local officials are holding off on any firm decisions in regard to partially opting out of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s legislation for marijuana legalization if it is passed by the state legislature.

The proposed legislation may allow municipalities, of a certain size, and counties to continue to ban the sale and cultivation of the plant even if its use is legalized for adults, 21 and over.

Criminal prosecution in Westchester for the possession of small amounts, (less than 25 grams) of marijuana was eliminated earlier this year by Westchester County District Attorney Anthony Scarpino Jr. A misdemeanor charge can still be leveled for smoking or viewably burning marijuana in public places.

Scarpino stated the loosening of marijuana criminal prosecution, as well as a bail reform regulation he instituted, “were illustrations of our commitment to a fairer system of justice that works for every member of our community, no matter where they live, the color of their skin or the amount in their wallets.”

Governor Cuomo had originally pushed for his legalization law to be included as part of the new budget adopted by April 1; however, many state legislators hesitated to approve the law without further discussions. The debate in Albany could go on up until just prior to the legislators’ recess in June, or even longer. Advocates for passage of the legalization this year have become somewhat less optimistic.

County Executive George Latimer is adopting a hold off status before taking any position for Westchester, noting, “We need to wait and see what becomes law, and in what form. The issue is being intensely debated in the community at large with both pro and con arguments.”

Latimer said, “Should the measure pass this year, and should a county opt-out provision be included in the law, our Administration and the Board of Legislators will meet to determine how to handle our role in the matter. Until then, we welcome all opinions and arguments on either side, as befits our policy of inclusion of all public input.”

Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner moved deeper into the issue last month by holding a Town Board meeting at which two Colorado officials provided information by phone about how marijuana legalization in 2013 had affected matters in their state, ranging from health issues, crime and automobile accidents.

Jack K. Reed, a statistical analyst with the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice’s Office of Research, and Michael Song, a Chief Deputy District Attorney for the City and County of Denver, answered a variety of questions.

Song related that there were a number of correlated aspects to legalization such as the “grey” market where marijuana grown in the state was bought, packaged and sold illegally to states where its use is still a crime.

Reference was made to a report published last October by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice on “Impacts of Marijuana Legalization in Colorado.” It stated, “The impact of marijuana consumption on the safety of drivers is a major focus, as any fatality on our roadways is a concern.”

The report noted, “More data about the impairing effects of marijuana and more consistent testing of drivers for marijuana are needed to truly understand the scope of marijuana impairment and its relation to non-fatal crashes.” It reported, “DUI (driving under the influence) cases overall were down 15% from 2014 to 2017,” according to the Colorado State Patrol (CSP).

However, it stated, “The number of fatalities where a driver tested positive for any cannabinoid…increased from 55 (11% of all fatalities) in 2013 to 139 (21% of all fatalities) in 2017.”

Traffic accidents, while “driving under the influence,” were cited last month by New York State, Westchester County and local law enforcement organizations as one important reason for their opposition to the legalization of marijuana use in New York.

Some traffic accident statistics from Colorado used within an article in this newspaper last month concerning the local police groups’ opposition to legalization, were described as “misleading” by Irvington resident Kathy Kaufman, a sociologist and author of a report, “Marijuana Arrests and Enforcement in Westchester County,” issued by the Westchester Coalition for Police Reform, of which she is a member.

Kaufman wrote the report with support from the New York Office of the Drug Policy Alliance. That Alliance office, “works to promote sensible drug policies and to build a movement to end the drug war in New York State.” It is pursuing the legalization of marijuana for adult use.

In its Executive Summary, her report stated, “Over the past decade, the American public has become increasingly aware of the systemic problems plaguing the nation’s criminal justice system, and of the disproportionate harm its most severe dysfunctions inflict on people and communities of color.”

The report goes on to note, “In Westchester County – despite an abundance of research showing that black and Latino people use marijuana at similar or lower rates than white people – people of color are arrested on misdemeanor marijuana possession charges at dramatically higher rates than their white neighbors, revealing a consistent pattern of racial bias that prevails in virtually every corner of the County, from its smallest villages to its most populous.”

According to the report, 14 percent of the county’s residents are black; however, “Black people accounted for 52 percent of those arrested for low level possession in Westchester. It also showed a disproportionate impact on Latinos, who comprise 24 percent of residents, but represent 32 percent of those arrested. The report, it said, drew its statistics from unpublished data from the State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Referencing Colorado statistics, the report asserts that marijuana related arrests in that state declined by 80 percent, from 10,236 in 2010 to 2,036 in 2014, the year following its legalization. While it acknowledges that “the research evidence to date on driving impairment caused by marijuana use is inconsistent,” it maintains that “U.S. states which have legalized marijuana have not experienced increases in traffic fatalities.”

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