Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said she does not see many communities supporting the recreational use of marijuana, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Dec. 17 he would seek to legalize and tax this year. “I might be wrong,” Curran said Curran. “It would be interesting to see who might embrace this.”
Some North Shore residents seem to support the proposal. A social media post sparked much discussion on the issue, with some residents agreeing with Cuomo. “Medicinally, it has been overlooked,” wrote Alexander Papas, of Glen Cove. “It obviously [has] great healing properties, and the more we understand it from that angle the more we can help people.”
Sea Cliff resident Jon Lauter agreed. “It’s just a freaking plant,” he wrote. “Outlawing poison ivy would have a more positive impact on humanity and be just as futile.”
Paula Frome, from Glen Cove, called the measure a “win-win.” “Not only will we save money and lives by not incarcerating people from marijuana,” she posted, “but there will be tax revenue from the sales.”
Al Salerno, of Glen Head, echoed her claim. “The tax revenue alone [would] fix all of our state’s problems,” he wrote.
Danielle Galiano said she supported legalization but had a caveat. “I’m with it so long as all marijuana related cases are dropped or re-examined, reparations are granted and communities that’ve been hit the hardest over the ‘war on drugs’ have first stake in the market,” she posted.
Skeptics and opponents of Cuomo’s plan have pointed to a rise in traffic accidents and fatalities in Denver since 2013, the year after recreational pot became legal in Colorado, as cause for concern. According to the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a collaboration of drug enforcement agencies, the percentage of fatal crashes in which drivers had marijuana in their systems increased from 10 percent in 2009 to 19 percent in 2014.
And the Denver Police Department stated that the number of cases of people driving under the influence of pot jumped from 33 in 2013 to 66 the following year. Curran said that this is one of the reasons why she would fight to ensure that tax revenue earned from legal marijuana sales would go to the Nassau County Police Department to ensure roads are safe.
There is no such roadside test to check drivers for marijuana, however. “Unlike driving while intoxicated, where you have breathalyzers and blood tests,” said State Sen. Jim Gaughran, a Huntington Democrat, “you could have marijuana in your system from smoking a month ago.”
State Assemblyman Michael Montesano, a Glen Head Republican, said that law enforcement contacted him earlier last year, when discussions of legalizing marijuana began. “They are very concerned that there is no way to test if someone they pull over is under the influence or not,” Montesano said, adding that he doesn’t support legalizing marijuana.
“The FDA sets the guidelines,” he added, referring to the Food and Drug Administration. “Marijuana is still a controlled substance under federal law.”
Gaughran said that while he supported Cuomo’s concept, the law must be written “carefully and accurately,” and include input from law enforcement to ensure adequate due process.
Glen Cove Mayor Tim Tenke agreed. “By legalizing marijuana, we are taking the criminal aspect out of it while delivering valuable tax dollars to the state and local communities,” he said. “However, I believe it is critical that we regulate the marijuana industry like we do for alcohol, so there are guidelines and restrictions in place for guidance and enforcement.”
“We’re going to have an increased public-safety problem,” Curran said. “I want to make sure the county gets its fair share of revenue to be able to cope with any issues arising from this.”
When it comes to marijuana sales revenue, Gaughran said he would eventually like to see it help fund public education, to reduce property taxes.
North Hempstead’s town board has passed laws mandating that medical marijuana dispensaries be at least 1,000 feet from schools and 500 feet from residential areas. Outside North Hempstead, Curran said, she had not heard much discussion about where dispensaries would be zoned.
Sea Cliff Mayor Edward Lieberman told the Gazette it was too early to decide on whether the village would commission its own dispensary. “A larger municipality has the advantage of keeping this away from a school or residences,” he said. “We in Sea Cliff wouldn’t have that option.”
An argument for legalization, Gaughran said, is its potential to slow the rate of opioid addiction. “Medical marijuana laws, now, are prohibitive, but it does have the ability to deal with the opioid epidemic,” he said.
Tenke agreed. “I think an interesting part of the marijuana conversation may be to consider its use as part of the solution to reduce dependence on these highly addictive and deadly drugs,” he said. “Of course, more research is needed in this area, but we should be open to new ideas to help heal people in need.”
Montesano said he worried that legalization would have the opposite effect. “All of the health experts say legalizing it isn’t the right thing to do,” he said, “and those running drug rehab centers are asking us why we’re thinking of doing this.”
He added that he worried about young people, saying that the adult brain doesn’t fully develop until ages 21 to 25, and that using marijuana could damage it.
The American Psychological Association has said that continued marijuana use has led to poor performance in school and higher dropout rates among teenagers. Curran said she would like to see increased education on marijuana’s impact on developing brains.
Officials from South Nassau Communities Hospital said in September that while marijuana is not a deadly drug, its use raises health concerns. Dr. Adhi Sharma, SNCH’s chief medical officer, said at the time that there was a 1-in-10 chance that an adult could become addicted to marijuana.
Sharma dismissed the notion that marijuana is a gateway drug, however, saying that in states where medical marijuana use has been legalized, there has been a 14 percent reduction in opioids prescribed for pain relief, resulting in 3.9 million fewer opioid pills being taken per day.
The Nassau County Police Department’s arrests for marijuana possession have increased steadily in recent years (see box). Some officials, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, have called for prior arrests and convictions to be expunged from people’s records. Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas did not return a call requesting comment.
Curran said she would not support such a move. “I think you have to follow the law as it was written at the time,” she said.
Laura Lane contributed to this story.