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North Shore reacts to marijuana legalization

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New York state on March 31 legalized recreational marijuana use — an effort years in the making — while setting regulations for a new industry and its taxation.

Spanning 128 pages, the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act addresses everything from enforcement and criminal justice reform to how taxes would be levied against marijuana producers and retailers and how those dollars could be spent. Upon its passage into law, it automatically expunged arrest records statewide for low-level marijuana offenses.

New Sea Cliff resident Dan Greenberger is an addiction counselor at a hospital in Manhattan. He said he works with patients who come into the emergency room intoxicated or have had issues with addiction and helps connect them to treatment.

Greenberger said he had a feeling recreational marijuana was going to be legalized in New York and that it was just a matter of time. He said legalization as a whole is a good thing, although it is important to monitor how the government plans to roll out sales. He appreciates that the state is going to expunge all low level possession offenders, he said, as well as the fact that it could bring in a lot of money for the state through taxes.

“Especially given the times that we’re in right now because of Covid, a lot of businesses are shutting down,” Greenberger said, “the economy is not booming like it was in the past and I think the state could really use the money.”

Greenberger said that many opponents to legalizing recreational marijuana use are against it because it can serve as a “gateway” to harder drugs. However, this is a misconception, he said, and it could be argued that alcohol is more of a gateway drug than marijuana is. He added that he does not think legalization will affect rates of marijuana addiction, nor users’ willingness to drive under its influence.

Addressing the stigma that comes along with substance addiction is another key part of the social aspect of legalization, Greenberger said. He hosts a podcast called “The Sober Highway” which aims to educate people on addiction and recovery. Addicts are normal people who have developed a poor way of coping with their emotions, he said, and it is unfair to look down upon people simply because of their addictions.

“As far as the stigma in general, people in recovery are people just like you and I and they should be treated the same way you and I are treated,” Greenberger said.

Greenberger said the state needs to handle the rolling out of recreational marijuana dispensaries slowly and carefully. So long as officials follow the experts and make informed decisions, he said, it can go very well.

Fellow Sea Cliffian Bruno Maldonado said legalization is long overdue and represents New York stepping into the 21st century. He said the War on Drugs has been a failure, resulting in the needless arrests of millions of people. This is especially true on Long Island, he said, where minorities have been disproportionately targeted by police because of the suspicion that they may be in possession of marijuana.

In Nassau County, Black and Hispanic people make up 25 percent of the population but account for 55 percent of marijuana arrests, according to a 2018 report from the New York Civil Liberties Union. A Black or Hispanic person is four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white one, the same report read.

“Now that we have legalized marijuana, it is time for the tax revenue gained from these sales to be used in building up communities around us,” Maldonado said. “Low-income school districts on the island need it the most. This is the least that politicians can do after waging a racist drug war which hurt primarily Black and brown communities the most.”

Chief among the legislation's priorities is to seek redress for decades of unequal enforcement of marijuana laws in communities of color, according to Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, a Democrat from Elmont and one of the bill’s co-sponsors in the Assembly.

Forty percent of tax dollars generated from the industry would go to a fund for social equity, which would support several support service programs such as workforce development and programs for families who have been hurt by drug enforcement laws, Solages said.

Alison Camardella, Sea Cliff resident and president of the North Shore Coalition Against Substance Abuse, said the legalization of marijuana for recreational use does not change the organization’s message that it should not be used by children or teens. She said parents need to continue to make that distinction for their children, whether it is legal for adults or not.

“For us, the reality is that marijuana has been in our community, whether it has been legal or illegal,” Camardella said. “Our mission is to reduce youth substance use and one thing is clear: It is not legal for our youth to use marijuana.”

According to the bill, the Office of Cannabis Management governing board would be charged with appointing a chief equity officer, who would be responsible for developing education plans targeted at the communities most harmed by drug laws on how to obtain the licenses and permits needed to gain entry to the cannabis industry.

Additionally, the social equity fund would provide for low-cost loans and incubator programs to ease access into the business. “For any person who wants to get into the business of cannabis, they’ll be given the opportunity to do so,” Solages said.

Tax dollars from cannabis sales, she said, would also be put toward law enforcement and education programs to ensure underage children do not have access to marijuana and police are better able to enforce DUI laws.

Local governments would be eligible for 4 percent of cannabis tax revenue, and while counties would be barred from opting out of marijuana sale and use in their jurisdictions, towns and villages could, with a provision that residents could hold a referendum to override village and town officials’ decision.

While the bill’s passage was imminent, Solages said she anticipated actual sale of marijuana would not happen in New York for at least another year. Ultimately, Solages said, the bill would seek to regulate an industry that already exists, but unofficially. Already, nearby states such as New Jersey have legalized recreational marijuana use. “Keeping it unregulated,” she said, “is doing ourselves a disservice as a state.”

Sea Cliff Village Administrator Bruce Kennedy said the legislation is poorly thought out. He said it allows people to legally smoke marijuana any place where they can smoke a cigarette, including public streets and sidewalks. Marijuana smoke is offensive to some people and potentially dangerous to people with breathing issues like asthma or allergies, he said, and secondhand smoke can result in somebody getting high unwillingly. He said he would support a legalization process like the one in Amsterdam, he said, where there are specific areas for permissible use of illicit drugs that are out of the public eye.

“This is a bad idea approved by short-sighted politicians,” Kennedy said. “I would support legalization that followed the Amsterdam model but not when the adverse effects to society at whole are trumped by people that just want to ‘light up’ anyplace they desire.”