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Rockville Centre reacts to looming pot legalization

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Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said she does not see many communities approving 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, a Democrat, said. “It would be interesting to see who might embrace this.”

Rockville Centre officials have proven her suspicion correct. Mayor Francis X. Murray and Village Trustee Michael Sepe spoke out against marijuana legalization at a village board meeting in October. “We don’t need another legal drug — we have too many,” Murray said. “We don’t need it. We don’t want it.”

The village’s zoning code prohibits head shops — stores specializing in cannabis and tobacco paraphernalia. In addition, local organizations and residents have been outspoken in their opposition to the legalization of marijuana.

Rockville Centre resident Liz Boylan called on the Board of Education in November to oppose Cuomo’s proposed measure. “When the Rockville Centre school district speaks,” Boylan said, “everybody in New York state listens.”

At the Nov. 14 meeting, board President John O’Shea addressed the issue. “I truly believe that it’s the wrong thing for us to do,” he said of legalizing pot. “The board and the school district will talk about it and see how the school district will want to go forward with it.

“The state is putting money above the welfare of our children,” O’Shea added.

Ruthanne McCormack, project coordinator of the Rockville Centre Coalition for Youth, said she has spoken with state officials, including Sen. Todd Kaminsky and Assemblywoman-elect Judy Griffin, about the community’s concerns, including underage pot smoking and driving while under the influence. McCormack noted that given the prevalence of electronic cigarettes, which are compatible with marijuana, young people would be able to vape pot more readily if it were legalized.

“Most students are vaping marijuana . . .,” she said. “They don’t think it’s bad for them, because people use [e-cigarettes] to stop smoking and don’t realize that there are metals in [the vaping device] that can cause them to be permanently ill.”

Sepe said that Colorado, which legalized recreational marijuana use in 2012, had seen an increase in traffic-related deaths due to driving under the influence of marijuana. He noted that if New York state legalizes it, “I frankly don’t know what the village will have the power to do.”

Not all think Cuomo’s idea is bad. In response to a Herald Facebook post seeking reaction from Rockville Centre residents, Adam Renz wrote, “It’s about time. Alcohol destroys way more lives.”

Would roads go to pot?

Like other residents, Christine Anne Hirschfeld expressed concerns about public safety. “Just what we need … stoned people driving and wandering into the streets,” she posted. Kaminsky, a Long Beach Democrat, said he was also concerned about people driving after smoking pot, and was organizing a roundtable discussion, called “Safe Roads in the Age of Legalization,” on Jan. 7 at 11 a.m. at Molloy College in Rockville Centre.

The roundtable will feature traffic-safety and law enforcement officials from areas where the recreational use of weed is legal — it’s allowed in nine states — who will discuss their experiences with keeping roads safe and keeping potentially dangerous drivers from getting behind the wheel. “So much of the important issues have yet to be discussed, yet alone fleshed out,” Kaminsky said.

Skeptics and opponents of Cuomo’s plan have pointed to an increase in traffic accidents and fatalities in Denver since 2013, the year after pot became legal in Colorado. 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 jumped from 10 percent in 2009 to 19.26 percent in 2014, and one in four drivers tested after traffic deaths were positive for marijuana.

According to the Denver Police Department, the number of cases of people driving under the influence of marijuana jumped from 33 in 2013 to 66 the following year. Curran said this was among the reasons why she would fight to ensure that tax revenue from legal marijuana sales would go to the Nassau County Police Department to ensure that roads are safe.

“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.”

Detective Vincent Garcia, an NCPD spokesman, said the department shares similar concerns. Comments from County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder and Rockville Centre Police Commissioner James Vafeades were not provided by press time. Kaminsky said he hoped to hear at the roundtable whether a roadside test to check drivers for marijuana is close to being a reality. (Currently there is no such test.)

Zoning dispensaries

North Hempstead’s town board has passed laws restricting marijuana dispensaries to zones 1,000 feet or more from schools and 500 feet or more from residential areas, but the Town of Hempstead has not taken up any similar measure, and has had few discussions on the matter, Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney said. “We’re behind the eight-ball,” said King Sweeney, a Republican from Wantagh. “We simply need to do more research and get up to speed on the issue.”

Curran said that aside from North Hempstead, she had not heard much discussion about where dispensaries would be zoned. The North Hempstead board also capped the number of dispensaries allowed in its jurisdiction to two. King Sweeney said she had asked her staff to look into how the Hempstead Town Board might draw zoning boundaries for such sites.

Town Supervisor Laura Gillen, a Rockville Centre Democrat, said that keeping dispensaries as far away as possible from schools, day care centers and places of worship would be a paramount concern of hers. “We don’t want to facilitate the introduction of marijuana to young children and schoolchildren,” she said.

Health issues

Officials from South Nassau Communities Hospital said in September that while marijuana is not a deadly drug, there are some health concerns. Dr. Adhi Sharma, SNCH’s chief medical officer, said that there is a 1-in-10 chance that an adult will become addicted to marijuana.

But Sharma dismissed the notion that marijuana is a gateway drug, saying that in states where medical marijuana use has been legalized, there has been a 14 percent reduction in the prescription of opioids for pain relief, resulting in 3.9 million fewer opioid pills being taken per day. He also said that in the Netherlands, where recreational marijuana use has been legal for 40 years, there is no statistical evidence that adolescents who use it moved on to other drugs.

The American Psychological Association, however, has said that continued marijuana use has led to poor school performance and higher dropout rates among teenagers. Curran said she would like to see more research on marijuana’s impact on developing brains.

In September, members of the RVC Coalition for Youth and the RVC Youth Council voiced concerns about marijuana legalization and its effects on the health and safety of students. Andrea Connolly, chairwoman of the Youth Council, said that the perception of many teenagers that marijuana does not have lingering effects is dangerous. If the drug were legalized in New York, she added, such legislation must be presented by the state so that “the kids . . . truly understand why, and what’s behind it.”

The Coalition for Youth plans to discuss the issue at its meeting on Jan. 7 at South Side High School.

Criminal justice

The NCPD’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 on whether she would take such action.

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. Kaminsky, a former federal prosecutor who tried drug dealers, said that as far as he was concerned, it would depend on the crime. “Are we talking about major traffickers, or somebody who had a small amount in a park?” he said. King Sweeney said she agreed with Kaminsky’s assessment.

Kaminsky said he believed that marijuana would be legalized around April, when the state budget is approved, but added that he would like to see the implementation of the law delayed, perhaps until 2020.

Briana Bonfiglio and Ben Strack contributed to this story.