Law enforcement fighting marijuana legalization

Coalition includes State Sheriff's Association, Association of Police Chiefs

ALBANY — A coalition of law enforcement officials and others launched a campaign against the proposed legalization of recreational marijuana, saying it will increase the number of people driving while on drugs.

“We took an oath as sheriffs to keep our communities safe, and legalization of marijuana will make our communities less safe,” said Oneida County Sheriff Rob Marciol, president of the New York State Sheriff’s Association.

Marciol and number of other law enforcement and other interested parties spoke out at a press conference Thursday at the sheriff’s association office in Albany.

“I think the big thing is drugged driving, what’s the effect going to be?” said Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo, who attended the press conference.

Police, who are accustom to enforcing drunken driving laws, said the possibility of having to arrest and prosecute people who may be driving while high raises a host of technical and legal issues, from the need to train many more officers in drug recognition to the likelihood that police dogs trained to sniff drugs including marijuana would have to be retired if marijuana is legalized.

“I pretty much share the concerns of the state sheriff’s association,” Schenectady County Sheriff Dominic D’Agostino said in a later interview. “Personally, I think we’re trading one set of problems for another.”

He noted that drug-detecting dogs would need to be used differently if they’re trained to sniff marijuana, and that private illegal drug dealing won’t go away, since dealers are likely to simply undercut the state’s official price.

“You develop a black market, and I think it flourishes even more than it does now with legalization,” D’Agostino said.

The new push from police is coming as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed legalization of marijuana in his 2020 budget, and bills to support that are pending in both the Assembly and state Senate. Cuomo has said the legalization could eventually bring in $300 million per year in new state tax revenue, from taxes on the legal sales.

The state Department of Health in 2018 issued a report recommending the state legalize non-medical use of marijuana. Marijuana is already legal in non-smoking forms for recreational use.

The Health Department study looked at pros and cons, and determined that the positive impacts outweighed the negatives.

“The creation of a regulated marijuana program would enable NYS to better control licensing, ensure quality control and consumer protection, and set age and quantity restrictions,” the study concluded. “Regulations would provide NYS with the ability to oversee the production, testing, labeling, distribution, and sale of marijuana.”

Opponents, however, said few if any benefits compared to the negatives of approving a new form of drug use.

Malverne Police Chief John Agresta, president of the state Association of Police Chiefs, said that his members feel that with a widespread opioid addiction epidemic is already causing harm across the state, marijuana shouldn’t be legalized.

“There’s no proof it’s not a gateway drug,” Agresta said. “We have to do everything we can to stop this.”

Sarah Ravenhall, executive director of the state Association of County Mental Health Officials, said experience in states where recreational marijuana is already legal shows that there’s a high potential for incidental exposure of children and an increase in the number of traffic accidents.

“Protecting public health must be the first pillar of any regulated marijuana program,” Ravenhall said. “As public health officials we would prefer that marijuana not be legalized, but if it is, we have to provide the resources needed for the front-line public health officials.”

The American Automobile Association said records show the number of auto crashes has increased in states like Colorado where recreational use has been legal for several years.

“We have very serious concerns about the impact of this on traffic safety,” said John Corbett, legislative committee chairman for the AAA New York.

The governor’s proposal would allow counties to opt out of allowing legal sales within their borders, thought the opt-out provision isn’t in the legalization bills that have been introduced in the Legislature.

The New York State Association of Counties has said it has a number of concerns about the proposal, including whether the state will provide the counties with money and resources to deal with the public health, public safety, criminal justice, consumer protection and other aspects of legalization.

“There are may facets of the governor’s plan, and county officials are exploring the entire proposal,” said NYSAC Executive Director Stephen J. Acquario. “There is industrial hemp, CBD oils for therapeutic applications, and the adult use of marijuana. Our current public health efforts combating tobacco use will double when we are talking about cannabis, including educational campaigns and cessation programs.”

The sheriffs in Rensselaer and Columbia counties, which border Massachusetts, said they’re seeing an increase in marijuana arrests in their counties since the recent legalization of marijuana in that state.

“We’re seeing a very big increase in the people coming from Massachusetts,” said Columbia County Sheriff David Bartlett.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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