ALBANY -- Advocates of marijuana legalization on Wednesday called for a state law that would allow residents to grow marijuana at home and make amends to people convicted under the current marijuana prohibition.
Speakers at the state’s first “listening session” on marijuana legalization, held at the Albany Capital Center, overwhelmingly supported a move toward legalizing the federally prohibited drug, but they also raised a bevy of issues they said a new law should address.
People who said they use marijuana for medical purposes, or work with people who do, said the costs of medical marijuana in New York are prohibitive for many who would benefit. A handful of speakers said they use marijuana to treat their ailments, but they don’t use the legal medical product because it’s too expensive.
Many of the speakers pointed to the specter of the nation’s opioid crisis as a reason to allow greater access to marijuana, arguing marijuana is a safer alternative to highly addictive opiates. Yet others said it was critical any effort to legalize marijuana also worked to undo the damage they said prohibition has wrought primarily on communities of color.
“We know prohibition does not work, it does not limit access,” said Lauren Manning, assistant director of the Albany-based Center for Law and Justice. She said people of color and their communities have born the brunt of prohibition as they are arrested for marijuana use at far higher rates than their white counterparts even though racial groups use marijuana at the same rate.
“This is about racial justice, social justice,” she said of legalizing marijuana. “This is about more than access, especially for those still behind bars.”
Legalization proponents called for sealing or expunging the records of people who have previously been convicted of marijuana crimes.
Many of the speakers embraced a “grow your own” approach that would allow citizens to cultivate marijuana at home for personal use, arguing personal growth would increase access and assuage concerns over costs. Some went as far as arguing the state has no right to regulate and tax marijuana they grow in their own homes. The state doesn’t tax the basil people grow, one pointed out.
“Legalize the home-grown so that people can really grow what they need,” said Bradford Beckerman of Kingston. “And that goes to the sick and poor. … If you are sick and poor you have to be able to do it yourself.”
Other speakers suggested the state set aside a certain share of permits for operating marijuana businesses for small operators, so the industry does not become dominated by large corporations. And the revenue garnered from a legal marijuana industry should be dedicated to assisting communities that have been harmed under prohibition.
But not everyone was in support of legalizing marijuana.
Joe Sellers, a Schoharie County physician speaking on behalf of the Medical Society of the State of New York, said the physicians group supports marijuana decriminalization but not outright legalization. He called for more study of states that have legalized marijuana and called for strict regulations if the state does legalize. If the state does legalize marijuana, he said, the medical society thinks the age to purchase marijuana should be 25.
Kristin Sweeter, a grant coordinator for the Niskayuna Community Action Program focused on youth drug and alcohol prevention, raised questions about what the state would do to prevent kids from accessing marijuana. She asked whether advertising would be limited and what resources would be devoted to preventing youth from using marijuana if the state legalized.
“We’ve had very few people talk about our youth and the impact on our youth. … This is not something we want for our youth,” she said. “It kind of sends a mixed message to our youth.”
Steve and Linda Hensel of Voorheesville said their son had a psychotic reaction to marijuana the first time he used it, which resulted in an accident that caused lasting damage. They said other people may also have a genetic disposition that puts them at risk of using marijuana, and argued state officials need to do more to research the links between marijuana and mental illness.
But legalization proponents attempted to rebut every argument raised against legalization. Roger Green, a recently retired pediatrician, said under marijuana prohibition, kids are still able to get their hands on the drug and that a regulated market would limit that access and potentially ensure a safer product for those youths who did use marijuana..
“They get it,” Green said of youths being able to access marijuana despite its current prohibition. “They get it, but God knows what they are smoking.”
Doug Kabat of Schenectady said he has spent nearly 50 years working as a substance-abuse counselor and that for much of that time he had been misled by federally funded research about the dangers of marijuana, arguing claims of those harms had been overstated.
“Now we have an opportunity to take some of this tax money and do good research, which is still lacking,” Kabat said.