As legal marijuana gets closer to becoming a reality in New York, state officials are asking the public: How can we get it right?
In September, the Department of Health launched a statewide listening tour bringing community organizers, physicians and pro-cannabis activists together to share their input as the state’s Regulated Marijuana Workgroup begins crafting language for an adult-use recreational marijuana law.
“We are not here to build consensus, but rather gather input,” from a variety of viewpoints, said Sandra Houston, a Department of Health official who moderated a session held in Ronkonkoma Tuesday evening.
Over 100 people packed a ballroom at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center to voice their opinion for or against marijuana legislation.
“The cat’s out of the bag,” said Suffolk County resident Larry Lodi. “People are using cannabis.” Mr. Lodi said that a regulated program would allow for proper testing of the product and generate much-needed tax revenue for the state.
The Department of Health report estimated that tax revenue in the first year alone could generate up to $678 million.
Another middle-aged resident, who asked to be identified by only his first name, said he has been regularly using marijuana since his youth, but it hasn’t negatively impacted his life: he’s married, has children, runs a business.
“I don’t want to feel like a criminal anymore,” Dave said. “I get away with it because I’m white, but people are getting racially profiled for this and that’s not fair either.”
Racial disparity plagues the criminal justice system, some activists said. Despite a 2014 decision by New York City not to make arrests for low-level marijuana possession, data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services for the first three months of 2018 show that many people — mainly black and Latinos — are still being arrested for minor offenses. According to their report, 93 percent of people arrested by the NYPD from January-March of 2018 were New Yorkers of color.
Nicole Nunez, a student at Farmingdale State University and youth organizer with Make the Road New York, a nonprofit that works with immigrant communities, spoke out against biased marijuana policing.
“We cannot continue to criminalize only young and communities of color for the use of marijuana,” Ms. Nunez said. “The collateral damage can be crippling for the same behavior that is ignored in wealthier, white communities,” she said, adding that tax revenue should be reinvested into communities “most harmed by past policies,” like the War on Drugs.
Under the proposed Marijuana Regulation And Taxation Act in New York, marijuana would be legalized for adults over 21 and seal the criminal records of those previously convicted for low-level charges.
Some speakers said 21 is still too young, citing studies that show brain development continues into the mid-twenties.
“It will send the wrong message to our youth,” said Ruthanne McCormack, project coordinator with the Rockville Centre Coalition for Youth. She said that in her community, teens already see a “highly low perception of risk,” related to alcohol and marijuana. She also expressed concern that legal products could be marketed toward children, like discreet vaping devices and edible marijuana products.
Several physicians stood on both sides of the issue.
Dr. Charles Rothberg of Patchogue said legalization poses public health concerns. “Twenty years ago, there was a rush to urge our health community to treat pain aggressively. We were sure that new opioids were safe. If only we could turn back the clock,” he said.
Dr. Tanya Adams, a physician from Setauket, disagreed, adding that the drug has been used safely for thousands of years.
“The relative risk of cannabis is exceedingly low,” she said, compared to other regularly prescribed drugs including opiates.
A Hempstead man said he was prescribed opioids for pain management, but didn’t like the side effects. “Opioid-based medicines had me on the couch feeling like a zombie. I smoke marijuana and I’m able to function in society as a normal person,” said Will Avalos, an Army veteran.
Current medical marijuana patients also expressed dissatisfaction with the current system. Ashley Hunt-Martorano of Medford said she was thrilled when she qualified for the program two years ago due to a rare neurological condition. “I quickly found it was very expensive,” she said, and not covered by insurance.
Increased competition by legalization, she said, could bring prices down.
“Right now, the medical marijuana program is only available for people of a certain socioeconomic status,” Ms. Hunt-Martorano said. “Recreational marijuana could bring the cost down for those of us who need it for medical purposes.”
New York is one of 29 states that have welcomed medical marijuana. In 2016, Riverhead become home to the county’s first medical marijuana dispensary on West Main Street.
Beverage distributors are also hoping to tap into the legal market.
Kevin McKillop, who owns Riverhead Beverage, spoke with Mike Boufis, owner of Bullseye Beverage in Smithtown.
“When it does become legal, we would like to be considered to be able to sell [marijuana] in New York State,” Mr. McKillop said.
Mr. Boufis added that beverage distributors could help safely regulate the product.
“We are already well equipped for all age detection. We have license scanners and are highly trained,” he said.
Those on both sides of the issue agreed that the state should proceed with caution.
Suffolk County Department of Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken said that while this will “very likely” become policy, the public should consider long-term consequences. “It’s not a done deal in terms of knowing that it’s safe,” he said.
Christine Casiano, chief administrative officer at Outreach, a substance abuse treatment organization, said as a parent of two, she’s “deeply worried” about legalization. “I do feel a bit like this is an express train that has already left the station,” she admitted. So instead of railing against marijuana, Ms. Casiano said the state should slow the process and ensure safeguards are put in place “so the train doesn’t go out of control.”
She suggested increase drug prevention programming, strict control of marijuana products, ensuring products aren’t marketed toward children, preparing for how use will be regulated in public settings, and how impairment will be dealt with on the roads and in workplaces.
Feedback will be brought back to the work group as they draft potential legislation. Gov. Andrew Cuomo established the multi-agency workgroup in August after a New York State Department of Health report released in July concluded that the positive effects of a regulated marijuana program in the state outweigh potential negative impacts. The group is tasked with considering economic impacts, public health and criminal justice.
Gov. Cuomo ordered the assessment in his budget address in January.
Nine other states and Washington D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana use for adults over 21. The Department of Health recommends that New York follow a model similar to Massachusetts, but acknowledges that the state would need to establish further requirements for each step of the supply chain.
Comments made during the listening session reflect the results of a recent poll conducted by South Nassau Communities Hospital in September. Residents of Suffolk and Nassau counties and the five boroughs were polled and the hospital found that 50 percent of respondents support legalizing recreational marijuana, 40 percent do not, and 10 percent are unsure.
Written comments on the proposed regulated marijuana program can also be emailed to [email protected].
Photo caption: Dozens spoke at the Tuesday night Regulated Marijuana Workgroup. (Tara Smith photo)