With recreational marijuana expected to be legalized this year, lawmakers, prosecutors and community leaders aired their concerns at Molloy College in Rockville Centre on Jan. 7 and discussed ways to soften the potential negative effects that such a law might have in New York.
The roundtable, hosted by State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, came about three weeks after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he would seek to legalize and tax marijuana this year, and covered the ramifications that legalizing cannabis would have on road safety and the challenges it could create for law enforcement and prosecutors trying those who drive under the influence.
State Senators John Brooks, Shelley Mayer and James Skoufis joined Kaminsky at the meeting.
“New York has the benefit of not being the first to do this,” Kaminsky said, “and I think there’s a lot to learn about what’s going on around the country so that we can take the steps we need to make sure that if we’re going to take the step of legalization, we’re doing it safely.”
Colorado was the first state to legalize marijuana, in 2012. Since then, nine more states have passed similar measures. Deena Ryerson, a traffic safety resource prosecutor in Oregon, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, said the drug’s effects on the body are one of the main challenges when it comes to ensuring safety, especially on the roads.
“Marijuana is not alcohol,” she told the room of several dozen in a video call. “When you have a blood alcohol level of .15, we all know the person’s impaired because that blood alcohol level correlates with what we know is impairment. That is not the same with marijuana.”
Marijuana contains THC, which latches on to fat in the body, as well as the brain. It can move out of the blood and into the brain in as quickly as 15 minutes after smoking, Ryerson explained, making it hard to detect and enforce in driving under the influence cases.
“Unless we can get warrants for brain tissue, which I’m pretty sure will never be the case, we’re never going to be able to correlate that impairment like we can with alcohol in the blood,” she said.
Patrick Ryder, commissioner of the Nassau County Police Department, said that DWI arrests in Nassau went down from 2,471 in 2017 to 1,400 in 2018, adding that the 22 fatalities on the roads related to impairment in 2017 decreased to eight last year. But legalizing marijuana would present a new problem, he said, calling such a measure “a mistake.”
“I don’t think you’re ever going to get law enforcement to agree on legalization,” Ryder said, “but we are professionals, and we’ll do as the laws come down, and we’ll act appropriately and handle it.”
On average, Nassau police make about 2,800 arrests per year for marijuana possession, Ryder said, noting that about half of the offenders are ages 18 to 20 — prime years for auto accidents. “And now, we’re going to legalize marijuana not knowing how long that stays in your system and not understanding how that impairment will affect your driver,” he said.
He added that though Nassau County saw a 30 percent reduction of opiate overdoses in 2018, despite a nationwide epidemic, marijuana is a gateway drug that opiate users often take.
Potential solutions to an enforcement issue
“Why doesn’t New York practice now while it isn’t legal?” said State Assemblywoman Judy Griffin, a Rockville Centre resident, noting that police officers, district attorneys and lawmakers need the opportunity to put safeguards in place before legalizing. “The rush is the main thing that disturbs me.”
Of the nearly 250 cases submitted to a lab in Oregon related to driving under the influence in the second and third quarters of 2018, Ryerson noted, there were drugs detected in 64 percent of subjects involved in fatal vehicle crashes. Thirty-two percent had marijuana in their bodies.
An April 2018 report by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission found that 39 percent of drivers who had used marijuana in the previous year admitted to driving within three hours of taking the drug.
A “robust” drug recognition program, with police officers specially trained in evaluating people under the influence of marijuana, will be key, she added, noting the increase of drug recognition experts in her home state in recent years. “A lot of it’s more of a mental impairment,” Ryerson said. “You’re not going to see the blatant physical impairment that you see with alcohol.”
Maureen McCormick, an assistant district attorney in Nassau County, said that “a comprehensive overhaul of our DWI statutes” will be necessary, noting that passing a law requiring people to take a saliva test when directed by an officer, for example, would help with enforcement.
She also suggested to the four state senators in the room to advocate for a percentage of the tax money generated by legalized recreational marijuana to be put toward treatment, police training, upgrades to crime labs and public safety messaging. “This is going to take a lot of money and a lot of resources,” McCormick said, “and it’s something that we have to do.”
Brendan Ahern, of the Suffolk District Attorney’s office, said that resources and safeguards must be allocated at the same time as legalization, emphasizing that people’s lives are at stake. “We’re either going to be telling [victims’ families] that we’ve turned over every stone and New York did this responsibly and we’ve got the technology . . .,” Ahern said, “or we’re going to tell them, ‘Hey, sorry, we didn’t do it right, so we didn’t detect it, so your loved one is dead and we can’t prosecute.’”
Also in the upstairs room at Molloy’s Barbara H. Hagan School of Nursing for the discussion were Judi Vining, executive director of Long Beach AWARE, and Ruthanne McCormack, project coordinator for the Rockville Centre Coalition for Youth, who represented students in local communities.
McCormack said that children as young as sixth-graders are vaping marijuana, and that educating students as early as kindergarten is important. She also urged lawmakers to prevent people under 25 from buying marijuana if it is legalized in New York.
Kaminsky said that he and his fellow senators would take the thoughts from the roundtable to Albany, where he expects a law to legalize recreational marijuana to be introduced in the coming months. “Getting this to be the right law between now and April is critical,” he said. “. . . If these concerns are not addressed, then we’re going to have a serious problem.”