Malverne, West Hempstead residents support recreational use of marijuana in New York

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Dec. 17 that he supported New York state’s efforts to legalize the use of recreational marijuana this year. On social media, residents from both Malverne and West Hempstead backed the idea.

“It’s fine, as long as it is regulated and taxed heavily,” Laura Casini, of Malverne, said on Facebook. “Age limit, driving restrictions, no public use, etc. Treat it, at least, like alcohol, which is far worse.”

Joe Cammarata, of West Hempstead, said that public use in certain places, such as designated smoking areas and cafes, should be permissible, and that he believed personal consumption on private property should be lawful. He said, however, that driving-while-intoxicated laws should be enforced.

Some residents said that since people are already using pot, the next logical step would be to regulate it. West Hempstead resident Kathy McCauley Marra said that the tax dollars could go toward combating the opioid epidemic in Nassau County.

Would roads go to pot?

Malvernite Patrice Watts Ward expressed a few public safety concerns. “Only thing that makes me nervous about this is the fact that very often lately while I am driving, particularly on the [Southern State Parkway], the odor of pot comes wafting into my car from the driver in front of me, and I’ve even seen the driver next to me smoking,” Watts said. “I’m worried that once it becomes legal, this will only become worse . . . Laws must be strict and enforced.”

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Long Beach Democrat, said he is also concerned about people driving after smoking marijuana and is organizing a roundtable discussion, “Safe Roads in the Age of Legalization,” on Monday at 11 a.m. at Molloy College.

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

Opponents of Cuomo’s plan have pointed to a rise in Denver’s car crashes and traffic fatalities since 2013, the year after recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado, as cause for concern. According to the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Traffic 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. One in four drivers tested after a traffic death was positive for marijuana, according to the report.

The Denver Police Department stated the number of people driving under the influence of marijuana jumped from 33 in 2013 to 66 the following year. Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said this is one of the reasons why she would fight to ensure tax revenue from legal marijuana sales went to the Nassau County Police Department to ensure roads were 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. A comment from Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder was not provided by deadline. Kaminsky said he hopes to hear at the roundtable if a roadside test to check drivers for marijuana is close to being a reality (no such test exists now).

Zoning dispensaries

Whereas the North Hempstead Town Board has passed laws prohibiting marijuana dispensaries with zones 1,000 feet of schools and 500 feet of residential districts, Hempstead has not taken up a measure and has had little discussion on the matter, Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney said. “We’re behind the eight ball,” King Sweeney, a Republican from Wantagh, said. “We simply need to do more research and get up to speed on the issue.”

Curran said, outside of North Hempstead, she had not heard much discussion about where dispensaries would be zoned. North Hempstead’s board also capped the number of dispensaries allowed in its jurisdiction to two. King Sweeney said she has asked her staff to start exploring how the Hempstead Town Board should draw zoning boundaries for such sites.

Town Supervisor Laura Gillen, a Rockville Centre Democrat, said a paramount concern of hers would be to keep dispensaries as far away as possible from schools, daycares and places of worship. “We don’t want to facilitate the introduction of marijuana to young children and schoolchildren,” Gillen said. “This is something that we, as a board, will work together nicely on to try to address a potential legalization of recreational marijuana.”

Health issues

Officials from South Nassau Communities Hospital said in September that while marijuana is not a deadly drug, there are certain health concerns. Dr. Adhi Sharma, SNCH’s chief medical officer, said at the time that there is a 1 in 10 chance an adult could become psychologically addicted to marijuana. “In a perfect society, we would not have the need for mind-altering substance use,” he said, later noting, “It’s part of the culture. Just like in our society, where alcohol has been part of the culture, used for its intoxicating effects.”

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 opioids prescribed 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 showing that adolescents who use it have moved onto other drugs. “Their experience does not suggest it’s a gateway drug,” he said.

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

Criminal justice

The Nassau County Police Department’s arrests for marijuana possession have increased steadily in recent years. Some, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, have called for prior arrests and convictions to be expunged from people’s records. Nassau’s district attorney, Madeline Singas, did not return a request for comment by deadline on whether she would do the same.

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 has tried drug dealers, said for him 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 believes that a recreational marijuana bill will pass around April, when the state budget is approved, but he would prefer that it not take effect until 2020.