By Ed Perratore
Westchester County in January reduced penalties for possessing up to two ounces of marijuana, and New York State’s new law decriminalizing possession of similar amounts takes effect later this month. A new poll from Siena College also shows New Yorkers favoring marijuana legalization 55% to 40%, so you might think most residents are on board for the state to follow 11 others that have fully legalized recreational marijuana.
But police officials in the county, and across the state, have not budged on their position: Proceed with caution. Extreme caution.
It isn’t only that Governor Andrew Cuomo surprised police departments across the state with his declaration, last December, that legalizing recreational marijuana was among the top goals for his third term. It’s that the police want no further steps toward state-sanctioned cannabis without a broad discussion—involving them and other stakeholders, such as medical professionals—that addresses their many doubts.
Following the governor’s declaration, the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police issued a statement urging the state to take its time, learn from the experiences of states that had opted for legalization, and include all appropriate parties in any further plans. The county’s chapter, the Westchester County Chiefs of Police Association, followed suit. “Is that where we really want to go? Are we really going to do it because other states have done it? That’s not necessarily the best answer,” said Mt. Pleasant Chief of Police Paul J. Oliva, the president of the county‘s chapter and author of its own statement.
White Plains Public Safety Commissioner David Chong who was also asked to comment said that all 42 of the county’s chiefs and commissioners have agreed to have one single spokesperson on the issue, the president of the county’s chapter.
The arguments of the Westchester County Chiefs are twofold: public safety and public health. And a primary disagreement police have with marijuana’s advocates is over the idea of marijuana as a “gateway drug” that leads to more dangerous, more addictive drug habits. The police insist it’s a gateway drug; the opposition considers that notion long debunked.
But in truth, today’s marijuana appears to be its own gateway. Many people today who advocate the legalization of recreational marijuana smoked it as teens, or in college, decades ago. And through the 1980s, the levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in marijuana that gives the high sensation, was less than 2%. Today, the ranges of THC content in licensed dispensaries of states that have legalized marijuana are much higher than that, but homegrown and black-market products, including THC-laced edibles resembling desserts or candies, can reach near 100% THC. Besides their greater psychoactive effects, higher THC levels are much more addictive.
Among the effects of routinely using today’s higher-THC marijuana, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are problems with attention, memory, and learning, along with increased risk of stroke and heart disease. Another potential effect—of particular concern if the user takes the wheel—is that “…marijuana users are significantly more likely than nonusers to develop temporary psychosis (not knowing what is real, hallucinations and paranoia) and long-lasting mental disorders, including schizophrenia,” according to the CDC.
Said Oliva: “Locally we’ve had people overdose on marijuana edibles, which, in all my 30-plus years as a police officer, I’d never seen.”
This is what worries those concerned about public safety. THC levels do not necessarily correspond with impaired driving as consistently as blood-alcohol counts, but police sometimes can spot high drivers—by their slower reaction time, impaired judgment of time and distance, and decreased coordination—much the way they do drunks. “After alcohol,” said the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “marijuana is the drug most often found in the blood of drivers involved in crashes.”
And even without all-out legalization, there are more drivers impaired by THC, alone or in combination with alcohol or other substances. “In the past three years, we’re seeing an increase in arrests with ability impaired from marijuana,” said Oliva. “We’ve had accidents where marijuana was definitely involved, accidents with injuries where people smoked or ingested marijuana, and have had more vehicle crashes.”
The many delivery systems of THC—joints, blunts, water pipes, edibles and more—further complicate how a police officer assesses a driver he or she has stopped along a highway. Unlike with alcohol, for instance, an officer during a vehicle stop cannot necessarily smell or measure marijuana in the driver’s breath. This, plus the way THC can linger in the blood for weeks, leads New York chiefs to insist that the financial impact of training officers to properly detect impairment by marijuana “could be crippling to some municipalities” without appropriate funding from the state.
Perhaps the greatest concern of both police organizations is the message legalization sends to kids, and THC’s particular effects on developing brains. Harvard Medical School cites studies suggesting “that when youth and young adults (whose brains are still developing), are exposed to marijuana in secondhand smoke, it may have permanent effects on executive function, memory, and even IQ.” Executive function helps us plan or manage time, evaluate ideas, finish work on time, and multitask.
The outcome gets worse if the teen or young adult is the one partaking. “Heavy marijuana use in adolescence or early adulthood,” said the American Psychological Association, “has been associated with a dismal set of life outcomes including poor school performance, higher dropout rates, increased welfare dependence, greater unemployment and lower life satisfaction.”
Oliva insists it shouldn’t be about tax revenue—or about politics. “It‘s a public safety issue,” he says. “Just as people choose to drive when they’ve been drinking, people will die on the roadways after full legalization. We need time to educate people about the dangers, even if one life is saved.”