Community, doctors and police discuss marijuana legalization

Dr. Adhi Sharma, left, chief medical officer at South Nassau Communities Hospital and Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of medicine, discussed the science behind marijuana use.
Dr. Adhi Sharma, left, chief medical officer at South Nassau Communities Hospital and Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of medicine, discussed the science behind marijuana use.
Peter Belfiore/Herald

In 2014, New York joined the 30 states in the union that have legalized marijuana use for medicinal purposes, allowing doctors to prescribe it and its derivatives for ailments ranging from epilepsy and chronic pain to symptoms resulting from cancer treatment.

Now, depending on November’s election results, the state could be inching toward legalizing the drug for recreational use, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo set to visit Hofstra University on Thursday to discuss the topic. New York would be the 10th state to do so.

The possibility of legalization has led to sharply divided opinions. In its latest Truth in Medicine poll, South Nassau Communities Hospital revealed on Sept. 20 that among the 600 residents of New York City and Long Island it surveyed, roughly 50 percent supported legalizing marijuana for recreational use, 40 percent were opposed and the remainder said they were unsure.

There’s a split in Oceanside as well — with residents offering a variety of opinions in a Herald social media inquiry.

“Nope, not in favor a gateway drug,” replied Ellen Lanore Caprino, acknowledging in later comments that her husband had been prescribed CBD, or cannabidiol, a marijuana derivative, for his stage 4 metastatic cancer — “a wonder drug for him.” She warned, however, that marijuana sold on the street differs from the types prescribed, and said she believed that was where the drug became a “gateway” to abusing harder substances.

Others, however, replied that they looked forward to legalization.

“Legalize it. Tax it. [It’s] safer than alcohol,” suggested Jonathan Shusterman.

And replying to Caprino’s gateway-drug comment, Andrew Berman wrote, “OxyContin and Percocet are the real gateway drugs.” Both are prescription opioid painkillers.

“Alcohol is the gateway drug, not marijuana,” shot back Tanya Crici.

Oceanside resident Steven Dodge, a recovering heroin addict, and founder of the SLATE Project, a not-for-profit specializing in drug counseling and addiction education for youth, said in an interview that he was incensed by the possibility of legalization for recreational use.

“It’s a gateway drug, I don’t care what anyone says. I will debate anyone on that,” Dodge said, noting that young people already considered the dangers of marijuana use as low.

He said that he was aware that the majority of marijuana smokers do not go on to do other types of drugs, but he said he believed the risk was enough to warrant serious consideration of whether an individual is prone to addiction.

“It doesn’t mean every single person who smokes or drinks alcohol is going to end up a with a needle in their arm,” Dodge said. “But everyone who ends up with a needle in their arm started with drinking or smoking weed.”

Dodge added that he was open to decriminalizing marijuana and eliminating arrests related to the drug, but not legalization for recreational use. In particular, he said, he was upset that the suggestion to legalize comes amid an opioid epidemic in which, on average, every 20 minutes someone dies in America from an opioid related-death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The legislative focus, he said, belongs elsewhere.

“It’s mind boggling,” he added. “Now we’re going to focus on legalizing marijuana. Why?”

Officials sound off

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, weighed in, saying in an interview that he believed that passage of recreational marijuana-use legislation was likely, and that his focus was on how to ensure that any new laws covered all bases in regards to public safety.

“I understand that a large part of my district is interested in legalization,” he said. “I think this is going to happen. I’m trying to get out in front, and what we must demand . . . is safety.”

Of chief concern, Kaminsky said, was to ensure that roads remain safe, and the need for additional funds for law enforcement training and technology to identify whether motorists are driving while high.

Additionally, he said, any legislation would need to prevent marijuana sellers from marketing to adolescents and teenagers. Finally, he added, public consumption of marijuana should be regulated much as alcohol is, with tickets and fines for smoking in public.

“I’m in the process of learning as much as I can,” he said of consulting with other elected officials and law enforcement, “and I suggest other people do the same.”

Also commenting on the possible legislation, Assemblywoman Melissa Miller, a Republican from Atlantic Beach, issued a statement in which she criticized the push for recreational legalization, adding that New York’s medical marijuana laws need reform, and make it difficult for patients to obtain the treatment they need.

“As someone who fought tirelessly for the medical marijuana law in this state, I was frequently accused of using my advocacy for the legalization of medical marijuana as a platform for full legalization or as a gateway for recreational use,” Miller said. “This couldn’t be farther from the truth, as I disagreed with recreational use then and still do.”

Doctors weigh in

As South Nassau officials unveiled their poll findings, Dr. Adhi Sharma, the hospital’s chief medical officer, and Dr. Aaron Glatt, its chairman of medicine, discussed what medical science has discovered about how the drug affects the body and how other states and countries have dealt with legalization.

“In a perfect society, we would not have the need for mind-altering substance use,” Sharma began, but noted, “It’s part of the culture. Just like in our society, where alcohol has been part of the culture, used for its intoxicating effects.”

The United States banned the use of marijuana roughly 80 years ago, but now as talks have accelerated to reverse that stance, he said, “We worry about what the impact would be.”

Some of it, he said, could be gleaned from looking at what studies have shown and the experiences of other states and countries that have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

“First, marijuana definitely impairs your ability to drive,” Sharma said, explaining that someone who has smoked before getting behind the wheel has a 25 percent increased chance to get into an accident, while someone who has had a few drinks of alcohol is twice as likely to get into an accident, and after a few more drinks are three times as likely.

From an addiction standpoint, Sharma said, citing CDC statistics, that there is a 1 in 10 chance that an adult could become addicted to marijuana.

“Marijuana is a non-lethal agent,” he said. “You can’t kill yourself with marijuana, and the addiction is mild compared to other substances.”

Additionally, he said, in the 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.

Sharma also noted that in the Netherlands — where recreational marijuana use has been legal for 40 years — there has been no statistical evidence showing that adolescents who use it moved onto other drugs, “Their experience does not suggest it’s a gateway drug,” he said.

Glatt focused on the dangers recreational marijuana use poses to children. In particular, he noted that the addiction rate among adolescents is higher than adults, and the CDC says there is a 1 in 6 chance of addiction to marijuana in teenagers.

“Much more importantly, there is a well-known toxicity to the brain of developing people,” he said, noting that it is one of the last organs to develop in the human body.

Studies, Glatt said, have shown that marijuana has been proven to lower IQs among habitual teenage users of the drug, and education, both doctors agreed, was crucial to protecting teenagers from the associated dangers.

“Whatever we as a public decide,” Glatt said, “there certainly needs to be safeguards put into place that the wrong people aren’t abusing recreational marijuana.”