Long Island reacts to Cuomo's pot announcement

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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. “It would be interesting to see who might embrace this.”

State Assemblyman Michael Montesano, a Glen Head Republican, does not support legalization of marijuana. An attorney and a former police officer and detective for the New York City Police Department, he is worried. “The state has dropped the ball on treating people with mental illness,” Montesano said, adding that the Food and Drug Administration has categorized marijuana as a controlled substance. “By doing this, Cuomo would be adding to the problem.”

A social media post asking residents in Bayville and Oyster Bay to weigh in on the governor’s announcement revealed a disparity of opinions. Some residents, like Poe Kasimakis, of Oyster Bay, support Cuomo’s plan. “Good for revenue,” Kasimakis wrote, adding that marijuana never should have been made illegal in the first place. “It’s harmless enough, non-addictive and way safer than liquor. And there are benefits to pain management, epilepsy.”

Michael Johnson of Bayville, who said he is not a smoker, also agrees with legalization. He wrote rhetorically, “So just let people get prescriptions legally and pop pills and drink all day but a natural plant that actually has benefits should be illegal?”

At least one respondent, Rachel Barrett, of Bayville, had personal reasons for not supporting the measure. “My mother was killed by a driver that tested positive for marijuana, so I may be biased in my opinion,” she said. “But I do not like the idea.”

And Kenneth Summers, of Oyster Bay, said he believes the only winner in legalization would be “Andrew and his re-election committee.” Admitting that he has smoked marijuana in the past, Summers wrote that he believes nothing good will come out of legalization. “Just another vice to add to all the others. People’s judgment will be impaired. I can see people sitting in their cars 100 yards before a traffic light.”

Public safety

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.”

Montesano 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.

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.

“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.

Montasano pointed out that in states where marijuana is legal even the issue of getting a prescription when the drug is needed for medical reasons is complex. Doctors, he said, can’t write a prescription. They have to write a certificate of use. The reason, he said, is because of the federal government’s determination that marijuana is a controlled substance. “The U.S. Justice Dept. is keeping hands off at this point, but it is only a matter of time until they wipe it [legalization by states] out.”

And it is not easy for those selling marijuana where it is legal, Montesano added. “They remit the sales tax to their state and then they are stuck with the cash they’ve made,” Montesano said. “It is considered illegal contraband, so the banks don’t want it. The credit card companies won’t take it either. These companies selling marijuana are vulnerable, being forced to use safety deposit boxes and safes on the premises for the cash.”

Zoning dispensaries

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.

Health issues

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.

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 worries about young people, he said because the adult brain doesn’t fully develop until ages 21 to 25. 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.

Criminal justice

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.

Alyssa Seidman contributed to this story.