Spirited debate erupted at the Croton Free Library last week during a raucous public forum addressing the possibility that New York State lawmakers will legalize recreational marijuana next year.
With state officials weighing legalization, Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D-Ossining) hosted a discussion last Thursday evening featuring a panel of experts on both sides of the issue. Galef said she organized the event to gather feedback from constituents before state lawmakers meet in January.
“There’s a lot of states that are addressing this issue on recreational marijuana. Next year, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Galef said. “There have been both successes and setbacks in terms of marijuana. As we get to the heart of the issues, is it right for New York and what needs to happen in order to make it work?”
Medical marijuana is legal in New York for patients who are certified by health care practitioners as having serious diseases and conditions, including cancer, AIDS, severe chronic pain and other ailments. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed the Compassionate Care Act in 2014 to legalize it for medical use, has said that the benefits of legalizing recreational marijuana outweigh the risks.
Recently, Cuomo concluded a series of listening sessions that offered advice on different legislative and regulatory approaches to legalization with a goal to draft a bill that lawmakers can consider in the upcoming 2019 session.
Throughout the two-hour forum, panelists with opposing views engaged in debate that riled the standing-room-only audience at times leading to applause, profanities and shouting. Speakers addressed health impacts, safety components, criminal justice reform, lessons learned from other states and how to avoid repeating previous mistakes.
Heather Trela, chief of staff and fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, noted that while states such as Colorado and Massachusetts have seen an increase in marijuana sales benefitting state coffers, that bump in revenue isn’t sustainable. She said as additional dispensaries open throughout the states that have approved recreational marijuana, it will no longer be considered a luxury.
“This will eventually level out,” Trela said. “In Colorado, young people are smoking less marijuana even though it’s legal. It’s not rebellious anymore, it’s not such a big thing. This may level out supply-wise.”
Kevin Sabet, president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, agreed that the marijuana industry is out to make money. The profits for states are a “drop in the bucket” for their budgets and doesn’t account for the costs, he said.
He also expressed concern that marijuana is being processed with higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which makes the substance more potent.
“I do think legalization is reckless because I see it as an equivalent to essentially arming another addictive, powerful industry,” Sabet said. “I think we’ve learned our lessons with that and they haven’t been good lessons.”
Thomas Lee, past president of the Westchester Medical Society and Westchester Academy of Medicine, said medical professionals are concerned about legalization. States that have legalized marijuana have seen an uptick in emergency room visits and traffic fatalities, he said.
Sabet added that other states that have legalized marijuana failed to have the discussions that New York is currently having. He suggested state lawmakers move much slower on considering a law they could one day regret.
Cristina Buccola, founder of Cristina Buccola Counsel and former general counsel to High Times magazine, asserted that there is no medical reason for a prohibition on cannabis. Buccola also cited the waste of more than 800,000 arrests made during the past 40 years for low-level marijuana possession.
She advised parents that the most responsible thing they can do for their children is to is stress that marijuana use is regulated and for adults only. Furthermore, cannabis retailers must require customers to present identification.
Buccola also said that minorities are unfairly targeted with low-level marijuana offenses.
“Prohibition didn’t start because of a medical reason, it started because of racism and it doesn’t work and it costs money,” Buccola said. “The safest way forward is legalization, is regulation. This is safer for kids, this is safer for consumers, this is safer for public health because then we can start having real conversations.”